A Virgin Galactic rocket plane blasted to the edge of space today and returned safely to the California desert, capping off years of hard testing to become the first US commercial human flight to reach space since America's shuttle programme ended in 2011.
However it will fall short of crossing the Karman line, which at 100 kilometres high, represents the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and space. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides noted that recent research favors the lower altitude.
Virgin Space Ship Unity was released from a carrier aircraft and ignited its rocket engine.
The company said the space ship's motor burned for 60 seconds, travelling at 2.9 times the speed of sound as it gained height.
Virgin's billionaire founder Sir Richard cried, high-fived and hugged spectators, as hundreds of the firm's employees and family members watched the launch.
Virgin Galactic's spaceship did not launch on a rocket but took off attached to an airplane from Mojave, California.
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For the first time ever, Virgin Galactic has reached space - by one definition, anyway.
After the rocket plane reached a 50-mile altitude, with an apogee of 51.4 miles above Earth, Mr Branson shed tears and high-fived and hugged spectators. Branson hopes to compete directly with Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Amazon's Jeff Bezos which also plans to ferry customers to space.
The VSS Unity is a SpaceShipTwo air-launched rocket plane that has been designed specifically for commercial use.
More than 600 clients have already paid US$250,000 for a ticket.
The rocket is shut down and the craft coasts to the top of its climb - and then begins a descent slowed and stabilized by unique "feathering" technology. It will be the first pair of wings awarded to VSS Unity's pilot in command, Mark "Forger" Stucky, a former Marine and test pilot for NASA and the US Air Force. NASA also flew payloads on the flight, making it the first revenue-generating flight for the company.
Just after 11 a.m. ET, SpaceShipTwo had its wheels down, back in the Mojave, safely ending a successful test flight. "What we witnessed today is more compelling evidence that commercial space is set to become one of the twenty-first century's defining industries", said Whitesides, in a statement.
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The US company run by British tycoon Richard Branson is aiming to be the first to take tourists on brief trips into microgravity.
"The amusing thing about races is people always say, "We're not in a race" until they actually win", Branson said.
"Although this could happen as soon as the next flight, the nature of flight test means that it may take us a little longer to get to that milestone".
The spaceship isn't launched from the ground but is carried beneath a special plane to an altitude near 15,240 metres.
On October 31, 2014, Virgin suffered a crippling setback with the death of co-pilot Mike Alsubry and injury of pilot Peter Siebold when a predecessor craft crashed due to a combination of human error and an engineering flaw.
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