Virgin Galactic spaceship takes first powered flight over Mojave

MOJAVE, Calif.

"It couldn't have gone more smoothly," said Sir Richard Branson, who owns the spaceline with Aabar Investments PJC of Abu Dhabi.

A special twin-fuselage jet carrying SpaceShipTwo took off around 7 a.m. from the Mojave Air and Space Port. It spent 45 minutes climbing to an altitude of 47,000 feet before released the spacecraft.

The rocket ship then climbed to an altitude of 55,000 feet. The engine burned for 16 seconds, long enough for the spaceship to achieve a stunning supersonic speed of Mach 1.2, surpassing the speed of sound. Finally, SpaceShipTwo glided to a safe landing at the space port.

"Today was a historic day," Branson told Eyewitness News. "It was putting the rocket with the spaceship and breaking the sound barrier. This is the first time since the demise of Concord that a commercial company has built a craft that has beaten the sound barrier."

The test flight, which lasted all of 10 minutes, was considered a major step for the program. Branson said it took 8 1/2 years to get this far.

"Today was a really, really important day," said NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria. "First powered flight of a human commercial space vehicle in the last 10 years and not the last in the future."

Branson said a commercial flight into space will happen much sooner than imagined.

However, it won't be cheap.

"By the end of this year, Virgin Galactic will be able to take people into space. We are that close," Branson said. "For a short while, it will be $250,000, and once we send a thousand people into space, we'll start getting the price down."

SpaceShipTwo is a prototype commercial version of SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 became the first privately developed manned rocket to reach space. Since the historic flight, more than 500 aspiring space tourists have paid $200,000 or plunked down deposits, patiently waiting for a chance to float in weightlessness and view the Earth's curvature from 62 miles up.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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