Virgin Galactic advances space tourism with successful test

File: Virgin's twin-fuselage carrier airplane holding the SpaceShipTwo passenger spacecraft took off soon after 7am from the Mojave Air and Space Port.

File: Virgin's twin-fuselage carrier airplane holding the SpaceShipTwo passenger spacecraft took off soon after 7am from the Mojave Air and Space Port.

MOJAVE, California - A Virgin Galactic rocket plane blasted to the edge of space on Thursday and returned safely to the California desert, capping off years of difficult testing to become the first US commercial human flight to reach space since America’s shuttle program ended in 2011.

The test flight foreshadows a new era of civilian space travel that could kick off as soon as 2019, with British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic battling other billionaire-backed ventures, like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, to be the first to offer suborbital flights to fare-paying tourists.

Virgin's twin-fuselage carrier airplane holding the SpaceShipTwo passenger spacecraft took off soon after 7am local time from the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 145km north of Los Angeles.

Richard Branson, wearing a leather bomber jacket with a fur collar, attended the take-off along with hundreds of spectators on a crisp morning in the California desert. After the rocket plane topped 50-mile altitude, a crying Branson high-fived and hugged spectators.

The carrier airplane hauled the SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket plane to an altitude of about 13.7km and released it. Seconds later, SpaceShipTwo fired, catapulting it to at least 80.47km above Earth, high enough for the pilots, Mark Stucky and Frederick Sturckow, to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet.

Virgin's latest flight test comes four years after the original SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight that killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot, dealing a major setback toVirgin Galactic, a US offshoot of the London-based Virgin Group.

"We've had our challenges, and to finally get to the point where we are at least within range of space altitude is a major deal for our team," George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's chief executive, told reporters during a facilities tour on Wednesday in Mojave, where workers could be seen making pre-flight inspections of the rocket plane.