Like a Virgin! Tourist ship touches space for first time

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This successful flight also makes Virgin Galactic the first commercial company to ever take human beings into space.

The space tourism company's feat marks the first successful manned space flight launched on US soil since NASA retired its space shuttle program in 2011.

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.

Branson spoke to CBSN from California's Mojave Desert after Virgin Galactic got one step closer to sending tourists to space. With two test pilots at the controls, the spacecraft quickly hurtled upward and out of sight from viewers on the ground.

He also stated that, if all goes well, only a few more test flights would be needed before Virgin Galactic would be ready to shift operations to Spaceport America in New Mexico, where the company plans to perform commercial flights. Whiteside said that's the standard used by the U.S. Air Force and other U.S. agencies.

In September, SpaceX said Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, founder and chief executive of online fashion retailer Zozo, would be the company's first passenger on a voyage around the moon on its forthcoming Big Falcon Rocket spaceship, tentatively scheduled for 2023.

He continued: "We will now push on with the remaining portion of our flight test programme which will see the rocket motor burn for longer, and VSS Unity fly still faster and higher towards giving thousands of private astronauts an experience which provides a new planetary perspective to our relationship with the Earth and with the comsos". "Sometime next year, once the testing is finished, then I'll do my flight", he said.

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The two pilots will attempt to launch the craft on a supersonic flight to the edge of space for the first time.

Virgin Galactic says it has reached a rather lofty milestone.

The test demonstrates significant progress toward the start of commercial flights that were promised more than a decade ago.

Branson's space venture suffered a major setback in 2014 when its first space plane, VSS Enterprise, broke apart during a test flight, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold.

As well as ballast to represent paying passengers (or "talking cargo" as one commercial pilot memorably described those sat at the back of the aircraft), NASA sent a number of technology experiments to take advantage of the extended period of micro-gravity achieved during the sub-orbital flight. Branson met the pilots after the flight and declared "Space is Virgin territory!"

"It was a great flight and I can't wait to do it again", said Mr Sturckow, who flew on the space shuttle four times.