Virgin Galactic plane reaches space, lands back on Earth

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"If we have a very good day, we could potentially have the first space flight into space of Virgin Galactic, so that would be a big milestone from our personal company and then on a national level, I think this would be the first human spaceflight from American soil into space since the retirement of the USA space shuttle", stated George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic.

Taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California attached to the aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, the spacecraft SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity took off into the early-morning sky. On Wednesday, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said that's the standard used by the U.S. Air Force and other U.S. agencies.

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

The aircraft reached an altitude of 271,268ft as it made its rapid ascent into space and clocked up a velocity equivalent to 2.9 times the speed of sound.

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.

While critics point to Branson's unfulfilled space promises over the past decade, the maverick businessman told a TV interviewer in October that Virgin's first commercial space trip with him onboard would happen "in months and not years".

"Today we have shown Virgin Galactic can open space to the world", he said.

Reaching the edge of space represents a major milestone for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.

Though it did not reach orbit, the flight was the first launch of a spacecraft from United States soil with humans on board to reach the edge of space since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011.

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The VSS Unity is a SpaceShipTwo air-launched rocket plane that has been designed specifically for commercial use.

Some define space as 100 kilometers - or 62 miles - above Earth, but others, use 50 miles as the boundary.

"The anticipated addition of SpaceShipTwo to a growing list of commercial vehicles supporting suborbital research is exciting", Ryan Dibley, Flight Opportunities campaign manager at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, said in a statement.

The two test pilots- Mark "Forger" Stucky and former NASA astronaut Rick "CJ" Sturckow - will be awarded commercial astronaut wings, said Federal Aviation Administration official Bailey Edwards.

Just after 11 a.m. ET, SpaceShipTwo had its wheels down, back in the Mojave, safely ending a successful test flight.

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.

The company plans to eventually take paying passengers on short trips to space.

"Today we completed our first revenue-generating flight and created two new astronauts - well, one of them was already an astronaut but you know what I mean".

Then, in 2014, SpaceShipTwo broke apart during a test flight by Scaled Composites when the co-pilot prematurely unlocked its unique "feathering" braking system and it began to deploy. The pilots fired up the rocket for 30 seconds, keeping the nose pointed up, and reached Mach 1.87 before coasting to an altitude of 84,271 feet and gliding back to a landing.

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