Sir Richard Branson: Space tourists are next

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"Today, as I stood among a truly remarkable group of people with our eyes on the stars, we saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled", Virgin founder Richard Branson said in a statement released Thursday.

Virgin Galactic reaches space for the first time during its 4th powered flight from Mojave, Calif.

Virgin Galactic's ambitions to make space tourism a reality were given a great boost when the company successfully reached space, or something like it, during a test flight on Thursday.

The rocket ship, called SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, climbed more than 82 kilometers during the flight above California's Mojave Desert.

The 80-kilometer space boundary is 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.

Rather than aiming for space using a NASA-esque vertically launched rocket, Virgin Galactic uses a rocket-powered space plane dubbed VSS Unity, a craft more comparable to the supersonic X planes developed by the USA military.

Branson isn't alone in the space tourism business: Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is planning to take space tourists on suborbital trips, using the more traditional method of a capsule atop a rocket that blasts off from a launch pad.

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Most recently, Richard Branson, the 68-year-old billionaire who founded Virgin Galactic, claimed that the company would reach space before Christmas. It reached a top speed of 2.9 times the speed of sound.

One VSS Unity pilot, Rick "CJ" Sturckow, already has his wings: A former Marine, Sturckow was a NASA astronaut who flew on four Space Shuttle missions. But Whitesides cited new research that favors the lower altitude and said that as a USA company it will use the US standard.

Mr Branson said, "Today we have shown Virgin Galactic can open space to the world", adding he aimed for a commercial space flight with passengers - including himself - to take place by March 2019.

A University of Florida experiment studying plant growth response to microgravity environments was also among the four investigations selected by NASA's Flight Opportunities program.

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.

As the test flights continue and Virgin Galactic gets closer to bringing space tourists on board, the waiting list for its flights grows. In October 2014, its spacecraft crashed during a test flight over the Mojave Desert, killing one of the pilots aboard and severely injuring the other. The co-pilot was killed but the injured pilot managed to survive a fall from high altitude with a parachute.

VSS Unity's feat represents a major step forward for Virgin Galactic's ambition - in tandem with The Spaceship Company, which built it - to take passengers into space on $250,000 sub-orbital joyrides, during which they will... The company marked a major milestone Thursday as Unity made it to a peak height of more than 51 miles, meeting the Federal Aviation Administration's definition of spaceflight.

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