Virgin Galactic has officially reached space. Sir Richard Branson's company launched a spacecraft more than 50 miles into the air Thursday, not reaching orbit but successfully meeting the Federal Aviation Administration's definition of space, the Washington Post reports. It was the first spacecraft with humans aboard to be launched from US soil and reach space since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, and it marked a milestone for the commercial space industry, which also includes companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, and Boeing. The Mojave, Calif., launch was the fourth test flight of the SpaceShipTwo Unity, reports Space.com, which has photos.
Two pilots were in the cockpit as the spaceplane, unveiled in 2016, was ferried to around 43,000 feet by a mothership and then released into a freefall. The pilots then ignited the engine and the spacecraft accelerated to faster than the speed of sound (hitting a top speed of Mach 2.9), eventually pointing nearly straight up as it traveled to a height of 51.4 miles before returning to earth to land at Virgin Galactic's Mojave space port. Branson has for years been aiming to create "the world’s first commercial spaceline," and founded Virgin Galactic in 2004. Space.com notes that Branson eventually plans to ferry passengers to space on VSS Unity for $250,000 per ticket for a brief period of weightlessness and a view of the earth's curvature. (A Virgin Galactic pilot was killed in 2014.)