After years of preparation, testing, and tragedy, Virgin Galactic has touched the edge of space. This Thursday in the skies over Mojave, California, the company's SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, was released from its mothership and fired its hybrid rocket engine for a full minute. This propelled pilots Mark "Forger" Stucky and Frederick "CJ" Sturckow at Mach 3 (1,934 knots, 2,225 mph, 3,581 km/h) to an altitude of 51.4 mi (82.7 km) before returning safely to Earth.

The flight was Virgin Galactic's fourth powered test flight of VSS Unity, and the company's first to reach the edge of space. Though the spaceplane did not reach the official limit of space of 62 mi (100 km), the altitude was regarded as high enough to be recognized by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which announced that the pilots will be awarded with FAA Commercial Astronaut Wings at a ceremony in Washington DC.

According to Virgin Galactic, the flight is not only a first for the company, but also the first-ever commercial passenger spacecraft to leave Earth, and the first US manned space launch since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011.

During the flight, the spaceplane went into a suborbital trajectory. As it reached apogee, Virgin Galactic Mission Control radioed the now-astronauts, "Unity, welcome to space." At this point the craft was experiencing a prolonged moment of weightlessness, as it fell back to Earth at Mach 2.5 (1,611 knots, 1,854 mph, 2,984 km/h). When the air became dense enough, the pilots deployed the feathering tailplanes that allowed them to tumble safely down to controlled flight altitude like a maple seed.

Also on board the flight were four NASA Flight Opportunities Program space science and technology experiments, which also makes this Virgin Galactic's first flight to generate revenue.

"Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space," said Sir Richard Branson. "Today we completed our first revenue generating flight and our pilots earned their Commercial Astronaut Wings. Today, we have shown that Virgin Galactic really can open space to change the world for good. We will now push on with the remaining portion of our flight test program, which will see the rocket motor burn for longer and VSS Unity fly still faster and higher towards giving thousands of private astronauts an experience which provides a new, planetary perspective to our relationship with the Earth and the cosmos. This is a momentous day and I could not be more proud of our teams who together have opened a new chapter of space exploration."

View gallery - 9 images