A Virgin Galactic spacecraft flew more than 50 miles above the Mojave Desert in California on Thursday morning, climbing into the edge of space for about a minute, a crucial milestone in the race to make big-business space tourism a reality.
The craft, SpaceShipTwo, soared at speeds topping out at 2.9 times the speed of sound — around 2,200 miles per hour — through nearly three layers of Earth’s atmosphere to reach space, the company said. SpaceShipTwo topped out at an altitude of 51.4 miles, just surpassing the Federal Aviation Administration’s definition of where space begins but lower than the widely accepted boundary of 62 miles.
Thursday’s accomplishment gave Richard Branson, the British billionaire who started Virgin Galactic in 2004 with the objective of ferrying tourists on short flights into space, a victory in the highly competitive but elusive contest of commercial space tourism. SpaceShipTwo had two people on board, both pilots in the cockpit, but carried research payloads that simulated the weight of carrying passengers.
“Today, as I stood among a truly remarkable group of people with our eyes on the stars, we saw our biggest dream and our toughest challenge to date fulfilled,” Mr. Branson, who witnessed the flight at the Mojave Air & Space Port in California, said in a statement. “It was an indescribable feeling: joy, relief, exhilaration and anticipation for what is yet to come.”
The SpaceShipTwo craft, named VSS Unity, became the first Virgin Galactic rocket ship to reach space, but it was not the first private crewed spacecraft to soar to those heights. More than 14 years ago, a rocket ship operated by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, which later licensed its technology to Mr. Branson, ascended to an altitude of 69.7 miles. The successful flight of that craft, SpaceShipOne, was heralded as the start of an age of commercial human spaceflight.
But in the following years, that promise soon faded. Private citizens were flown to the International Space Station, but commercial flights did not materialize amid setbacks in the industry, including the fatal crash of a previous SpaceShipTwo in 2014.
Two other billionaires have also started space travel companies. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has Blue Origin, and Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, founded SpaceX. Mr. Musk recently announced that Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese clothing executive, will be SpaceX’s first customer to fly around the moon, a trip scheduled for 2023 at the earliest.
The flight on Thursday included two phases. SpaceShipTwo, attached to a cargo aircraft, took off around 7:15 a.m. local time from the airport in the Mojave Desert, the company said. After ascending to about 43,000 feet, the two craft separated and SpaceShipTwo’s pilots, Mark Stucky and Frederick Sturckow, fired up the rocket.
It took only a couple of minutes for SpaceShipTwo to reach its top speed and glide into space, where it stayed for about a minute, the company said, before starting its descent. The pilots landed the spacecraft at about 8:15 a.m.
Mr. Stucky and Mr. Sturckow, a former NASA pilot, will be awarded commercial astronaut wings from the F.A.A. at a ceremony next year, Virgin Galactic said.