Virgin Galactic's supersonic space plane soared into the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere Thursday for a milestone test flight. And it effectively opens a new era in human spaceflight, one where companies are working to end governments' long held monopoly on space, aiming to push farther faster.
Virgin Galactic's spacecraft Unity was piloted by two veteran pilots: Mark "Forger" Stucky and Rick "CJ" Sturckow.
SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, took off in the early morning sunshine at the Mojave test centre in California on Thursday in front of hundreds of employees and their family members.
Sir Richard Branson celebrates the Virgin Galactic test flight in California.
"We saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled. It was an indescribable feeling: joy, relief, exhilaration and anticipation for what is yet to come". It was Virgin Galactic's first trip to space.
VSS Unity took off attached to its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo.
The test flight started at 10 AM local time, and it was all over by 11:15 AM when VSS Unity landed on its Mojave airstrip. After a few seconds of coasting, VSS Unity's rocket engine fired on.
For 60 seconds, the two-man crew piloted Unity, pushing it to a speed of Mach 2.9 -- almost three times the speed of sound - edging toward "the edge of space".
VSS Unity's peak altitude of 51.4 miles is similar to what Virgin Galactic has planned for commercial flights.
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It had reached space altitudes around 50 minutes after take-off, which the ongoing company;s Twitter account acknowledged with a tweet which read: "SpaceShipTwo, welcome to space".
Sadly, the historic moment hasn't arrived in time for the late Stephen Hawking, who had said he was well up for ticking off one of his life goals bysetting off into space with Virgin Galactic.
Flown by two pilots, Mark Stucky and Nasa astronaut Frederick Sturckow, the aircraft made its rapid ascent as the rocket motor burned for 60 seconds.
New versions of SpaceShipTwo are built by a Virgin Galactic sister company and flight testing is now in-house. This mission served as a redemption of the past failure, as well as a statement of success and ambition from Virgin Galactic. Branson shunned the money after learning about the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in October.
He predicted the price would go up initially, to absorb the cost of developing space travel, before dropping as the number of craft increased. "Space is not cheap", he said. "Then we will move the operation to a space port in New Mexico", he said. When you are in the test flight programme of the company you can never be completely 100 per cent sure - because that's what a test flight programme is - to test it to its limits.
He told CNN Business' Rachel Crane in a post-launch interview Thursday that he looks "forward to go up in maybe five, six months time".
Virgin Galactic's first experimental spacecraft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot. CSF President Eric Stallmer said the "commercial space industry will create unprecedented opportunities for space tourism and democratize space for all".
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