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Richard Branson. Source: Brendan McDermid/Reuters.
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  • Richard Branson soars above the New Mexico desert on Sunday as part of Virgin Galactic’s first fully-crewed test flight to space
  • Reaching a height of 86 kilometres, the crew experienced a few minutes of microgravity before gliding back to Earth
  • Virgin Galactic says it has at least two more test flights planned for the next few months ahead of beginning commercial operations next year
  • Already, 600 wealthy would-be citizen astronauts have also booked reservations, with tickets priced at roughly US$250,000 (A$334,000) each
  • Branson has said he ultimately aims to lower the price to around US$40,000 (A$53,500) per seat

Richard Branson soared above the New Mexico desert on Sunday aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket plane, before safely returning to Earth as part of the vehicle’s first fully-crewed test flight to space.

One of six Virgin Galactic employees to be strapped in for the ride, Branson heralded the mission as a precursor to a new age of space tourism, with the company he founded in 2004 set to begin commercial operations next year.

“We’re here to make space more accessible to all,” Branson, 70, said shortly after landing. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age.”

Space industry executives, future customers and other well-wishers attended the festive launch, which was live-streamed and hosted by late-night television comedian Stephen Colbert.

The white spaceplane was carried on the underside of the dual-fuselage jet VMS Eve — named after Branson’s late mother — from Spaceport America, a state-owned facility near the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

Reaching its high-altitude launch point of 46,000 feet, the VSS Unity passenger rocket was released from its mothership before flying straight upward at supersonic speed to a height of 86 kilometres.

The crew then experienced a few minutes of microgravity as the spaceplane shifted to re-entry mode and began a gliding descent back to the spaceport’s runway. The entire flight lasted only around an hour.

Virgin Galactic said it has at least two more test flights planned for the next few months ahead of beginning commercial operations next year. One of those flights will carry four Italian astronauts-in-training, according to CEO Michael Colglazier.

Already, 600 wealthy would-be citizen astronauts have also booked reservations, with tickets priced at roughly US$250,000 (A$334,000) each. Branson has said he ultimately aims to lower the price to around US$40,000 (A$53,500) per seat as Virgin Galactic ramps up its service.

Colglazier said he envisions building a fleet large enough to accommodate around 400 flights each year at the spaceport.

The success of Branson’s flight gives the flamboyant businessman bragging rights in a rivalry with fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who are also planning expeditions to low-altitude space with their own ventures.

Bezos, who founded Blue Origin, will fly aboard his suborbital rocket ship, New Shepard, later this month.

However, Blue Origin has disparaged Virgin Galactic as falling short of a true spaceflight experience. Unlike Unity, the New Shepard tops the 100-kilometre-high mark, known as the Kármán line, which was set by an international aeronautics body as the official boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.

“New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name,” Blue Origin said in a series of Twitter posts on Friday.

That said, both NASA and the US Air Force define an astronaut as anyone who has flown higher than 80 kilometres.

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