(NBC News) Virgin Galactic has flown its first astronauts to the edge of space, opening the door for space tourists to blast off as early as next year.
The company’s Unity spacecraft completed its longest rocket-powered flight ever Thursday.
Two pilots on board Unity took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port and reached an altitude of 51.4 miles above Earth’s surface.
Upon reaching an altitude above 40,000 feet, a carrier aircraft released Unity.
The two-member crew of Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay then piloted the spacecraft in a roaring burn which lasted 60 seconds, pushing them nearly three times the speed of sound.
After performing a slow backflip in microgravity, Unity turned and glided back to land safely at Mojave.
This was Virgin Galactic’s fourth rocket-powered flight of its test program.
Virgin Galactic chairman Richard Branson says he’s aiming for the company’s first commercial flight sometime next year.
“We’re on cloud nine,” Branson said after the flight.