ROUGH CUT (NO REPORTER NARRATION) Virgin Galactic rocket plane reached space on Thursday (December 13) and returned safely to the California desert, capping years of testing to become the first U.S. commercial human flight to breach Earth's atmosphere since America's shuttle program ended in 2011.
The successful test flight presages a new era of civilian space travel that could kick off as soon as 2019, with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic battling other billionaire-backed ventures such as Amazon.com Inc 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 at 7:11 a.m.
Local time (1511 GMT) from the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 90 miles (145 km) north of Los Angeles.
British billionaire Branson, wearing jeans and 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 reached an apogee of 51.4 miles (83 km) 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 to cheers and applause, concluding roughly an hour's journey.