Virgin Galactic sends tourist rocket into space for first time

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Richard Branson center celebrates with pilots Rick "CJ" Sturckow, left, and Mark "Forger" Stucky, right, after Virgin Galactic's tourism spaceship climbed more than 50 miles high above California's Mojave Desert on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018.

During a test flight Thursday morning in Mojave, Calif., a pair of pilots flying the company's SpaceShipTwo spacecraft hit an altitude of 51.4 miles. Then, about 43,000 feet in the air, VSS Unity's pilots commanded the plane's release.

The passenger rocket reached a height beyond the altitude at which space is said to begin, marking a huge leap in the firm's space programme.

Once the test program is finished, he said the operation will move next year to Spaceport America, the futuristic facility in New Mexico where it intends to fly its tourist flights.

The Kármán line, at 100km, has commonly been regarded as where space starts, but Virgin Galactic will point to discussions within the scientific community about revising this figure downwards to 80km.

VSS Unity was released from carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, which ignited its rocket engine and released the plane at an altitude of around 8 miles.

With two test pilots at the controls, the spacecraft quickly hurtled upward and out of sight from viewers on the ground.

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Thursday's test flight "saw a 60 second planned rocket motor burn which propelled VSS Unity to nearly three times the speed of sound and to an apogee of 51.4 miles", the company explained in its news release. The aircraft reached an altitude of 271,268ft before making its descent back to earth.

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

Reaching the edge of space represents a major milestone for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. "Then I plan to go up into space", he said, noting he looks forward to that next year and is "very, very excited".

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.

More than 600 people have committed up to $250,000 for rides in the six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet. We plan to burn the rocket motor for longer than we ever have in flight before, but not to its full duration.

"SpaceShipTwo, welcome to space", the company tweeted during live coverage of the flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

The successful spaceflight is something of a coup for Virgin Galactic, which has been competing with other commercial space ventures - Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin among them - in what is increasingly becoming a crowded field. They should get several minutes of weightlessness and a view of Earth.