ROUGH CUT (NO REPORTER NARRATION) A Virgin Galactic rocket plane blasted to the edge of space on Thursday and returned safely to the California desert, capping off years of difficult testing to become the first U.S. commercial human flight to reach space since America's shuttle program ended in 2011.
The test flight foreshadows a new era of civilian space travel that could kick off as soon as 2019, with British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic battling other billionaire-backed ventures, like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, to be the first to offer suborbital flights to fare-paying tourists.
Virgin's twin-fuselage carrier airplane holding the SpaceShipTwo passenger spacecraft took off soon after 7 a.m.
Local time (10 a.m.
ET) from the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 90 miles (145 km) north of Los Angeles.
Branson, wearing a leather bomber jacket with a fur collar, attended the take-off along with hundreds of spectators on a crisp morning in the California desert.
After the rocket plane topped 50-mile altitude, reaching an apogee of 51.4 miles above earth, a crying Branson high-fived and hugged spectators.
The plane reentered the atmosphere at 2.5 times the speed of sound and landed a few minutes later.
One of the pilots handed Branson a small Earth stress ball when the two hugged after the space ship landed safely after about an hour's journey.
"Today we have shown Virgin Galactic can open space to the world," Branson said, adding he aimed for a commercial space flight with passengers - including himself - by March 2019.