Branson plans to reopen bookings for space flights after successful test

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Sir Richard Branson has succeeded in sending a tourist rocket plane into space for the first time, marking a giant leap for Virgin Galactic in the race to launch commercial space travel.

As predicted, Virgin Galactic's supersonic plane VSS Unity took off for a test flight on Thursday, touching the edge of space before safely returning to Earth.

After taking off attached to the company's carrier plane WhiteKnightTwo, VSS Unity rocketed to an altitude of 82 kilometres (51 miles) before cruising back to ground in a gliding descent.

A Virgin Galactic rocket plane reached space yesterday and returned safely to the California desert, capping years of testing to become the first US commercial human flight to breach Earth's atmosphere since America's shuttle program ended in 2011.

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The spacecraft SpaceShipTwo company Virgin Galactic has performed a fourth test flight and set a world record. We started Virgin almost 50 years ago dreaming big and loving a challenge.

Bezos' New Shepard has already flown to the internationally recognized boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space known as the Karman line at 62 miles (100 km) - though the Blue Origin trip did not carry humans.

The spaceship then ignited its engines and continued traveling at about 3 times the speed of sound.

At the start of the test flight, a special jet carrying the Virgin Space Ship Unity flew to an altitude near 43,000 feet (13,100 meters) before releasing the craft.

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Richard Branson celebrates with VSS Unity's pilots Mark "Forger" Stucky and Frederick "CJ" Sturckow.

Virgin Galactic considers that altitude to be the threshold of space because it's defined that way by the Air Force and other US agencies, although others have long considered the boundary to be higher. Virgin celebrated the vessel's first encounter with space, but the company is using the loosest definition of "space".

The next flight test is expected within the next couple of months, depending on data analysis from Thursday's flight, Virgin Galactic said.

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

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After arriving back at the test centre, the co-pilot, Mr Stucky, said: "It was a great flight". CSF President Eric Stallmer said the "commercial space industry will create unprecedented opportunities for space tourism and democratize space for all". Virgin's researchers are, however, favouring the lower figure as a more accurate representation. Just recently, NASA concluded that astronaut Nick Hague made a spaceflight on Soyuz MS-10 even though the flight was aborted about two minutes after liftoff and did not attain orbit. The crew capsule reached 93 kilometers altitude, however NASA's statement was that it counts it as a spaceflight for Hague and his Russian crew mate Aleksey Ovchinin because they "launched and landed in a spacecraft or an intended mission to the International Space Station" without mentioning any altitude.