Test pilots take Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo to space for first time, land back on Earth

Supersonic space plane reaches 51 miles above Earth

Two test pilots successfully took Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo into the edges of space Thursday carrying several low-gravity experiments, including those from two Florida universities.

Taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California attached to the aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, the spacecraft SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity took off into the early-morning sky.

After reaching 43,000 feet, VSS Unity dropped from the aircraft, coasting for a few seconds before firing up its engines.

C.J. Sturckow, a former NASA astronaut, and Mark "Forger" Stucky, a former NASA test pilot, were on board, piloting the spacecraft through its first journey into space.

Mission official Enrico Palermo said the pilots reached reached Mach 2.9 and took SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 51 miles before beginning its gliding descent. It landed minutes later.

The 50-mile mark is what earns astronauts their space wings, according to NASA. The International Space Station is about 200 miles above the planet.

The previous record for the spacecraft was just more than 32 miles.

The flight marked the first time astronauts have launched from U.S. soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and a star-studded list of supporters were on the ground cheering on the mission throughout the daring flight.

As SpaceShipTwo started heading back for landing, viewers heard a sonic boom as the spaceship broke the sound barrier.

Just after 11 a.m. ET, SpaceShipTwo had its wheels down, back in the Mojave, safely ending a successful test flight.

Branson greeted the two pilots after the test, declaring "Space is Virgin territory!"

Along with the two test pilots on board, SpaceShipTwo was carrying four microgravity experiments selected by NASA, including the University of Central Florida's Collisions Into Dust Experiment, or COLLIDE. Read more about the project here.

COLLIDE's principal investigator, UCF physics and planetary science professor Josh Colwell, said he and his team were excited by the opportunity to be on the inaugural flight to space for Virgin Galactic.

"That’s a very exciting position to be in, and I feel some sense of responsibility to have it be successful on their inaugural flight," Colwell said.

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.

The successful fourth test flight for the spacecraft marked a major comeback for Virgin Galactic after the fatal test flight of its spacecraft four years ago.

The milestone also means the company is closer to launching space tourists. Hundreds of people put down up to $250,000 to be on the first flights with paying customers on board.

Branson isn't alone in the space tourism business: Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is planning to take space tourists on trips, using the more traditional method of a capsule atop a rocket that blasts off from a launch pad. SpaceX's Elon Musk recently announced plans to take a wealthy Japanese entrepreneur and his friends on a trip around the moon.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (Image: The SpaceShip Co.)