No spacecraft with people on board has taken off from United States soil since the American space shuttle program ended, as scheduled, seven years ago.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, flew higher than it ever has before on Thursday, surpassing what the US Air Force considers the boundary of space, and marking the first manned flight to space from US soil since 2011.
As of October, Virgin Galactic was "more than tantalizingly close" to leaving Earth's atmosphere, according to Richard Branson.
This marked the fourth test of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said after this flight that a full-duration burn would last approximately five seconds longer. Branson himself has already stated that he will be the first to ride as a passenger after the craft is fully tested. "There is no guarantee that everything will work perfectly first time and, like all programs seeking to take bold steps, we will inevitably have times when things don't go as planned".
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. After a 60-second engine burn speeds the craft to almost three times the speed of sound, it continues its ascent, coasting until it reaches maximum altitude.
The achievement has been recognized by the FAA, which plans to award the flight's pilots in a ceremony next year.
The company's boss Sir Richard Branson has told Sky News he hopes a commercial flight will take place by March 2019.
Image The VSS Unity took off the Mojave Desert early on Thursday
"People have literally put their lives on the line to get us here".
"We are now planning to fly at the opening of that window on Thursday, pending acceptable weather and technical readiness", a blog post said.
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.
In addition to the test pilots, a flight test dummy and four research payloads from NASA's Flight Opportunities Program were on board to help simulate the weight distribution of having passengers on board. The prize was created to kick-start private development of rocket ships that would make spaceflight available to the public.
When Branson licensed the SpaceShipOne technology, he envisioned a fleet carrying paying passengers by 2007, launching them from a facility in southern New Mexico called Spaceport America. The first SpaceShipTwo model, VSS Enterprise, crashed in 2014, killing one of the two pilots onboard.
Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity supersonic plane successfully breached the edge of space during a flight today, the company has announced.
On the ground, a gaggle of press, space enthusiasts, including Branson and his guests watched the flight, tilting their heads skyward.
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