Virgin Galactic's fourth flight test on the VSS Unity is scheduled for Thursday, weather permitting.
Virgin Galactic's tourism spaceship climbed more than 50 miles high above California's Mojave Desert on Thursday, reaching for the first time what the company considers the boundary of space.
Virgin's carrier airplane holding the VSS Unity spaceliner took off early Thursday from the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 145 kilometers north of Los Angeles, California.
The firm's SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket ship reached a height of 82.7km, beyond the altitude at which USA agencies have awarded astronaut wings. Like a bomb, the spacecraft was released into a freefall before the pilot ignited the engine, propelling the spaceplane faster than the speed of sound. After the rocket plane topped 50-mile altitude, reaching an apogee of 51.4 miles above earth, a crying Branson high-fived and hugged spectators.
VSS Unity the Virgin Galactic space craft is hoped to be piloted into space for the first time on Thursday
Though it just scratched the lowest edge of where many believe space begins, the launch had huge implications for a growing industry aiming to fly civilians on a regular basis.
Hundreds watched the space tourism plane take off at 7.10am and successfully land back at the test centre, which Sir Richard described as "a relief".
Sturckow, a former space shuttle pilot, will become the only person to be awarded astronaut wings from both NASA and the FAA.
Another often-cited boundary is 62 miles (100 kilometres), the so-called Karman line. But Whitesides cited new research that favors the lower altitude and said that as a USA company it will use the US standard.
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During descent, the craft's twin tails are created to rotate upward to slow it down, then return to a normal flying configuration before the craft glides to a landing on a runway. It landed on a runway minutes later.
SpaceShipTwo was safely back on the ground at 11:15 a.m. EST.
Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic's first two astronauts. The test demonstrates significant progress toward the start of commercial flights that were promised more than a decade ago.
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Virgin Galactic has not yet said when it plans on beginning its first passenger flights. Reusable vehicles built and operated by private companies are about to transform our business and personal lives in ways which are as yet hard to imagine.
A rocket ship set to launch from California's Mojave Desert could herald a giant step toward the long-awaited dream of space tourism for Virgin Galactic. When it crossed the 50-mile mark around 11:15 a.m. ET, it became the first human-piloted US commercial flight to leave the atmosphere since 2011.
Virgin's ultimate goal is to build a series of spaceports around the globe, "and we're operating multiple times a week at each one of those and enabling tens of thousands of people to experience space", George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's chief executive, said in a recent interview.
Fox News' Christopher Carbone and The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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