Scaled Composites has announced that they have been working on a project to launch the first non-government space-plane for the last two years. They demonstrated part of it in the Mojave Desert today.
It is a two-part plane. A launch vehicle called the White Knight takes off like an airplane, with the actual spacecraft called SpaceShipOne attached to it’s belly. At 50,000 feet, the spacecraft is released and propels itself into orbit.
SpaceShipOne re-enters with high drag to slow it quickly so that the heat of re-entry is not a factor. It glides to earth like any other unpowered glider.