Branson's Virgin Galactic reaches edge of space

Virgin Galactic tourism rocket ship reaches space in test

"Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space", Branson said earlier in a statement.

The commonly accepted global definition of space is 62 miles high (100 kilometers), but the US Air Force considers the space boundary to be a bit lower, at 50 miles. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides noted that recent research favors the lower altitude.

Virgin Galactic's spaceship did not launch on a rocket but took off attached to an airplane from Mojave, California.

The spaceship ignited its rocket engine and it quickly hurtled upward and out of sight of viewers on the ground.

Rocket man and Virgin billionaire Richard Branson's commercial space programme successfully reached the edge of the world's atmosphere for the first time in its fourth test flight across the U.S. today.

With two seasoned pilots in the cockpit - Mark "Forger" Stucky and C.J. Sturckow - the vehicle known as SpaceShipTwo was ferried to an altitude of about 43,000 feet by a mothership. "When you are in the test flight program of a space company, you can never be completely, 100 percent sure, because that's what a test flight program is", he said.

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.

In addition to the test pilots, a flight test dummy and four research payloads from NASA's Flight Opportunities Program were on board to help simulate the weight distribution of having passengers on board. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson was on hand to watch the historic moment.

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Thursday's supersonic flight takes Virgin Galactic closer to turning the long-delayed dream of commercial space tourism into reality.

One of the pilots handed Sir Richard a small Earth stress ball when the two hugged after the space ship landed safely following about an hour's journey.

Virgin's latest flight test comes four years after the original SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight, killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot.

Richard Branson told reporters after the SpaceShipTwo test that commercial flights from Spaceport America could start in 2019 after as few as three more test flights.

More than 600 people from 50 different countries have reserved places to fly with Virgin Galactic when all testing has been completed. Famous people including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and music star Justin Bieber are among them. A 90-minute flight costs $250,000. 'On Virgin train to Glasgow and then on to Paisley, ' added John Hawthorne Merrow.

The company is squared up to compete directly with Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos in 2000 to offer suborbital tourism flights. Also, SpaceX founder Elon Musk recently announced plans to take a wealthy Japanese businessman and his friends on a trip around the moon.

Whitesides said upcoming test flights would include flying company employees in the vehicle along with pilots in order to test operational procedures for future flights that will carry spaceflight participants.

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