Virgin Galactic has become the first company to have a crewed commercial spaceship built to carry private paying passengers reach space.
The space craft, called SpaceShipTwo – a collaboration between Virgin Galactic and the Spaceship Company – took off from the Mojave Desert in California carrying two pilots and a mannequin as a stand-in passenger.
The space ship reached a height of 82.7km (51.4 miles). The US government has awarded astronaut wings to pilots who have flown farther than around 80km above the Earth’s surface, according to the BBC.
Founder Sir Richard Branson said watching the flight from the ground is “one of the proudest moments of my life”.
Virgin Galactic planned to launch sub-orbital commercial space flights around 2009, but the company faced delays and a fatal crash in 2014.
Thursday’s flight is a milestone for commercial space aviation, with Elon Musk promising tourist flights with SpaceX and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos launching Blue Origin.
However, many organisations use the Karman Line, which is 100km above the Earth’s surface, bringing Virgin Galactic just shy of what many consider to be where space begins.
When the company begins accepting bookings, it will charge $250,000 for a 90-minute flight. Virgin Galactic claims 600 people have already purchased tickets or put down deposits.
Branson said: “Ever since I watched the moon landings as a child I have looked up to the skies with wonder. I started Virgin nearly 50 years ago dreaming big and loving a challenge. Today, as I stood among this truly remarkable group of people, all of us with our eyes on the stars, we saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled.”
He also hailed the achievement of the craft’s pilots, Mark Stucky and Frederick Sturckow, who were on board as SpaceShipTwo’s motor propelled it “to almost three times the speed of sound”. Both pilots will be presented with private astronaut wings by the US Federal Aviation Administration in Washington next year.
Branson says the next portion of the programme will aim to see SpaceShipTwo’s motor burn for longer so it can reach a higher altitude.