Virgin Galactic tourism rocket ship reaches edge of space in test flight

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Sir Richard applauded and cheered as SpaceShip Two touched back down at the test centre.

Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company founded by entrepreneur Richard Branson, has successfully made it to space for the first time with VSS Unity, their SpaceShipTwo-class rocket-powered plane, during the craft's 4th test flight.

SpaceShipTwo, named the VSS Unity, hitched a ride on Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo aircraft before separating and taking off under its own power.

Mission official Enrico Palermo said: "We made it to space!"

Virgin Galactic has more tests of VSS Unity planned before moving to Spaceport America in New Mexico where it will set up its tourism operation.

He said: "Today we have shown Virgin Galactic can open space to the world".

Virgin Space Ship Unity was released from a carrier aircraft and ignited its rocket engine.

The spacecraft with two test pilots, Mark (Forger) Stucky and Rick (CJ) Sturckow, at the controls quickly hurtled upward and out of sight from viewers on the ground.

As for VSS Unity itself, Virgin Galactic confirmed at 16:14 UTC that the spacecraft had landed safely at Mojave Airport, a little over 10 minutes after touching space.

That day can not come soon enough for Mercury 13 candidate Wally Funk, who booked her flight on Branson's dream machine back in 2012 and at 79 might finally get a chance to go to space.

"This is a test flight", said George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, "with all of the novelty and excitement and risk that goes along with a real test flight".

As the plight of Virgin Galactic shows, ending government's long-held monopoly on human spaceflight has been hard.

Ultimately, the company aims to carry paying passengers on its spaceship, which is created to carry six people in addition to two pilots.

Virgin Galactic considers 50 miles (80 kilometers) the boundary of space because that is the distance used by the U.S. Air Force and other U.S. agencies.

The Thursday flight could pave the way for the company to begin flying their commercial customers to suborbital space sometime in the relatively near future, a huge boon for the company that has faced its fair share of setbacks on the road to spaceflight.

Passengers will float in zero-gravity for several minutes, before coming back to Earth.

Branson isn't alone in the space tourism business: Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is planning to take space tourists on suborbital trips, using the more traditional method of a capsule atop a rocket that blasts off from a launch pad.

He didn't elaborate on those other scenarios, but the company has already seen a worst-case one: the October 2014 accident during the flight of the first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, that destroyed the vehicle, killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injured pilot Pete Siebold. The spaceship reached Mach 2.9, almost three times the speed of sound.

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