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Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic conducts historic 2nd test flight

Crew members on board the VSS Unity as the space craft reaches the edge of space.
Three crew members aboard the VSS Unity on Feb. 22, 2018. Photo: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company founded by billionaire Richard Branson, conducted a second successful test flight of its VSS Unity spacecraft in the skies above Mojave, California on Friday morning and this one made history.

Why it matters: The flight brings the company one step closer to realizing its vision of carrying tourists to space for tickets that reportedly cost up to $250,000 a piece. The test flight on Friday included a third passenger, Beth Moses, who is the company's chief astronaut instructor and a micro-gravity researcher. She became the first passenger to reach space aboard a commercial space craft.

The company said in a tweet that Moses "will provide human validation for the data we collect, including aspects of the customer cabin and spaceflight environment from the perspective of people in the back."

The details: The VSS Unity took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port at about 8 a.m. PT, carried by a larger plane, known as WhiteKnight Two. The aircraft flew to about 40,000 feet, where Unity was released from the mother ship, lit its rocket engine and eventually reached Mach 3 and an altitude of 55.85 miles.

That altitude is important, as it lies below the Karman Line, which is the widely accepted boundary to space that is 62 miles above the Earth's surface. However, the Federal Aviation Administration considers the beginning at 50 miles, and will hand out astronaut wings to persons who fly to that altitude.

Virgin Galactic's rival in the space tourism market, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, has run test flights above the Karman Line.

What they're saying: In remarks at a conference this week in New York, Bezos criticized Virgin Galactic's tests for not exceeding the Karman Line.

"We've always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Karman Line, because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you're an astronaut or not," he said, according to Space News. "That's something they’re going to have to address, in my opinion."

Go deeper: Special report: The new global race to space

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that this flight included the first passenger carried to space aboard a commercial spacecraft.