Richard Branson: commercial space travel 'tantalisingly close'

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After two years of ground and atmospheric testing, the passing of this milestone marks the start of the final portion of VSS Unity's flight test program.

Created to ferry paying space tourists and research payloads to edge of space, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo vehicle has been in development more than a decade.

The VMS Eve crew consisted of pilots Mike "Sooch" Masucci and Nicola Pecile, who piloted the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft which ferried VSS Unity test article aloft. The mated vehicles climbed to a launch altitude of around 46,500ft over the Sierra Nevada Mountains before Eve executed a clean release of Unity.

VSS Unity fired its rocket engine for 30 seconds yesterday, reaching a maximum altitude of 84,271 feet (25,686 meters) - that's almost 16 miles (25 kilometers) - and a top speed of Mach 1.87, Virgin Galactic representatives said.

Virgin Galactic successfully launched its first rocket-powered space flight in four years with the Unity spacecraft reaching supersonic speeds before safely landing Thursday in the Mojave Desert in California.

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At approximately 50,000 feet (15,240 meters), the tail-booms were lowered again.

Over 700 guests, including celebrities Katy Perry and Brad Pitt, have already reserved a seat on one of Virgin Galactic's first flights for a cost of $250,000 (£200,000) a seat.

The VSS Unity rocket plane incorporates safety measures to prevent pilots from prematurely unlocking the feathering mechanism, which apparently functioned as intended Thursday.

"Space feels tantalisingly close now", Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson tweeted.

Engineers also changed the SpaceShipTwo rocket motor design from one that used plastic-based fuel to one that burns rubber-based fuel. The propulsion system was not a factor in the accident.

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Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said: "On rocket shutdown, Unity continued an upwards coast to an apogee of 84,271 feet before readying for the downhill return".

Unity has previously flown on test flights in which it glided without lighting the rocket.

The tail booms are famous because "feathers" because their function has been likened to the feathers of the badminton shuttlecock.

The Mojave company had conducted a series of glide tests but had not fired up the spaceship's rocket-powered motor.

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