Mission official Enrico Palermo says it reached an altitude of 82 kilometres before beginning its gliding descent. The company received an abundance of criticism focused on whether the danger of space tourism made the rewards worthwhile, but after following recommendations set forth by the National Transportation Safety Board's report on the incident along with further design and safety enhancements, they forged ahead to make today's event a reality. "Today we have shown Virgin Galactic can open space to the world", he said.
Richard Branson center celebrates with pilots Rick "CJ" Sturckow (L), and Mark "Forger" Stucky (R), after Virgin Galactic's tourism spaceship climbed more than 50 miles high above California's Mojave Desert on December 13, 2018.
One of the pilots handed Sir Richard a small Earth stress ball when the two hugged after the space ship landed safely following about an hour's journey.
Virgin Galactic considers 50 miles (80 kilometers) the boundary of space because that is the distance used by the U.S. Air Force and other U.S. agencies.
Another often-cited boundary is 62 miles (100 kilometres), the so-called Karman line.
A successful flight will be significant progress toward the start of commercial flights that Virgin Galactic promised more than a decade ago. Future goals for the company include providing commercial spaceflights for paying passengers.
"This is a huge step forward and once we look at the data we'll see what that pathway is", he said.
As VSS Unity coasted upwards through the black sky and into space, Virgin Galactic Mission Control confirmed the news and congratulated the two astronaut pilots with the phrase: "Unity, Welcome to Space". The space plane had a top speed of nearly three times the speed of sound and had a Mach 2.5 supersonic re-entry into the planet's atmosphere. The space plane was piloted by two expert pilots, Mark "Forger" Stucky and Frederick "CJ" Sturckow, both of whom will be awarded with FAA Commercial Astronaut Wings in a ceremony early next year.
After arriving back at the test centre, the co-pilot, Mr Stucky, said: "It was a great flight".
But years passed, the program suffered delay after delay and in 2014, a fatal setback: The spacecraft came apart mid-flight, killing Michael Alsbury, the pilot.
A University of Florida experiment studying plant growth response to microgravity environments was also among the four investigations selected by NASA's Flight Opportunities program.
According to Virgin, SpaceShipTwo is hauled to an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13.7 kms) by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane and released. The twin tails temporarily rotate upward to increase drag, then return to a normal flying configuration before the craft glides to a landing on a runway.
Observers watch Virgin Galactic's SpaceshipTwo take off for a suborbital test flight of the VSS Unity in Mojave, Calif.
Those new customers might be paying more than the $250,000 price previously offered by the company. Blue Origin will use the more traditional method of spacecraft attached to a rocket launched from the ground.