Sir Richard Branson: Space tourists are next

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Mission official Enrico Palermo said the spacecraft reached an altitude of 82 kilometres before beginning its gliding descent. It landed on a runway minutes later.

For the past few hours, Virgin Galactic has posted numerous photos from today's landmark mission on various social media platforms, including a photo of Mark Stucky and CJ Sturckow, the two crew members who piloted the mission.

The company plans to eventually take paying passengers on short trips to space.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has said he wanted to be one of the first on board.

Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic's first two astronauts. The flight was the first by the vehicle to cross the boundary of 50 miles, or approximately 80 kilometers, that USA government agencies use to award astronaut wings. But the long-held view is the boundary is 62 miles.

When asked about Virgin Galactic's competitors in a recent interview with CNN Business, Branson said it was not a "race".

The billionaire said he aimed for a commercial space flight with passengers, including himself, as early as March next year.

According to the statement, if the flight is successful the company will then "start simulating the commercial weight distribution in the spaceship represented by our future passengers".

VSS Unity was carried aloft beneath the odd-looking White Knight Two aircraft at 7:11 PT (15:11 GMT) from California's Mojave Air and Space Port. The VSS Unity then fired up its rocket engine and quickly traveled up and out of sight from a group of watchers on the ground.

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"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.

SpaceShipTwo, the company's suborbital space plane, was ferried to an altitude of 50,000 feet by WhiteKnightTwo, a twin-fuselage carrier aircraft.

More than 600 people have all bought tickets to be on the first round of commercial space flights in six-passenger rockets by Virgin for up to $250,000 (£200,000) a ticket.

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.

Virgin Galactic has successfully sent a spacecraft to the edge of space. After that, it appears that the experience will be available to the public - for a hefty price of course.

SpaceX, the company owned by Elon Musk, is focused on carrying equipment for Nasa's programmes - although they do hope to take a Japanese billionaire around the moon by 2023.

But a series of delays has grounded the firm, which suffered a disaster four years ago, when the VSS Enterprise broke apart in midair, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold.

An exuberant Branson took the stage at the Mojave Air and Space Port here to congratulate the company and its employees for a successful test flight December 13 of the SpaceShipTwo vehicle named VSS Unity, which reached a peak altitude of 82.7 kilometers.

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