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(Adds Richard Branson comments after successful test)
MOJAVE, Calif., Dec 13 (Reuters) - A Virgin Galactic rocket plane blasted to the edge of space on Thursday and returned safely to the California desert, capping off years of difficult testing to become the first U.S. commercial human flight to reach space since Americas shuttle program ended in 2011.
The test flight foreshadows a new era of civilian space travel that could kick off as soon as 2019, with British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic battling other billionaire-backed ventures, like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, to be the first to offer suborbital flights to fare-paying tourists.
Virgin's twin-fuselage carrier airplane holding the SpaceShipTwo passenger spacecraft took off soon after 7 a.m. local time (10 a.m. ET) from the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 90 miles (145 km) north of Los Angeles.
Branson, wearing a leather bomber jacket with a fur collar, attended the take-off along with hundreds of spectators on a crisp morning in the California desert. After the rocket plane topped 50-mile altitude, reaching an apogee of 51.4 miles above earth, a crying Branson high-fived and hugged spectators. The plane reentered the atmosphere at 2.5 times the speed of sound and landed a few minutes later.
One of the pilots handed Branson a small Earth stress ball when the two hugged after the space ship landed safely after about an hour's journey.
"Today we have shown Virgin Galactic can open space to the world," Branson said, adding he aimed for a commercial space flight with passengers - including himself - by March 2019.
51.4 MILES ABOVE EARTH
The carrier airplane hauled the SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket plane to an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13.7 kms) and released it. Seconds later, SpaceShipTwo fired, catapulting it to more than 51 miles (82 km) above Earth, high enough for the pilots, Mark Stucky and Frederick Sturckow, to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet.
Virgin's latest flight test comes four years after the original SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight that killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot, dealing a major setback to Virgin Galactic, a U.S. offshoot of the London-based Virgin Group.
"We've had our challenges, and to finally get to the point where we are at least within range of space altitude is a major deal for our team," George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's chief executive, told reporters during a facilities tour on Wednesday in Mojave, where workers could be seen making pre-flight inspections of the rocket plane.
While critics point to Branson's unfulfilled space promises over the past decade, the maverick businessman told a TV interviewer in October that Virgin's first commercial space trip with him onboard would happen "in months and not years."
Thursday's test flight had two pilots onboard, four NASA research payloads, and a mannequin named Annie as a stand-in passenger.
More than 600 people have paid or put down deposits to fly aboard Virgin's suborbital missions, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber. A 90-minute flight costs $250,000.
Short sightseeing trips to space aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket are likely to cost around $200,000 to $300,000, at least to start, Reuters reported in July. Tickets will be offered ahead of the first commercial launch, and test flights with Blue Origin employees are expected to begin in 2019.
Other firms planning a variety of passenger spacecraft include Boeing Co, Elon Musk's SpaceX and late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Stratolaunch.
In September, SpaceX said Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, founder and chief executive of online fashion retailer Zozo, would be the company's first passenger on a voyage around the moon on its forthcoming Big Falcon Rocket spaceship, tentatively scheduled for 2023.
Musk, the billionaire CEO of electric carmaker Tesla , said the Big Falcon Rocket could conduct its first orbital flights in two to three years as part of his grand plan to shuttle passengers to the moon and eventually fly humans and cargo to Mars.
According to Virgin, SpaceShipTwo is hauled to an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13.7 kms) by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane and released. The spaceship then fires its rocket motor to catapult it to at least 50 miles (80.47 km) above Earth, high enough for passengers to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet.
Bezos' New Shepard has already flown to that altitude - an internationally recognized boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space known as the Karman line - though the Blue Origin trip did not carry humans.
Virgin's Thursday launch likely will not go as high as the Karman line. Virgin's pilots are aiming to soar 50 miles into the sky - the U.S. military and NASA's definition of the edge of space and high enough to earn commercial astronaut wings by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
Thursday's test flight carried two pilots, four NASA research payloads, and a mannequin named Annie as a stand-in passenger.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Mojave, California Additional reporting by Irene Klotz in Cape Canaveral, Florida Editing by Leslie Adler and Nick Zieminski)