Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has successfully launched a tourism rocket plane into space for the first time.

SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, took off in the early morning sunshine at the Mojave test centre in California on Thursday in front of hundreds of employees and their family members.

The aircraft reached a staggering altitude of 271,268ft after being released by its carrier plane at 43,000ft. It reached a top speed of 2.9 times the speed of sound.

Hundreds watched the space tourism plane take off at 7.10am and successfully land back at the test centre, which Sir Richard described as “a relief”.

It had reached space altitudes around 50 minutes after take-off, which the company’s Twitter account acknowledged with a tweet which read: “SpaceShipTwo, welcome to space.”

The billionaire businessman made reference to those who had sacrificed their lives for the Virgin Galactic cause, such as the co-pilot who had died after a crash in 2014.

Flown by two pilots, Mark Stucky and Nasa astronaut Frederick Sturckow, the aircraft made its rapid ascent as the rocket motor burned for 60 seconds.

Speaking to the crowd after the successful launch, billionaire businessman Sir Richard said: “Who shed a tear here? I was shedding lots.

Virgin Galactic
Sir Richard Branson with pilots Frederick Sturckow (left) and Mark Stucky (Josh Payne/PA)

“Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space.

“Today we completed our first revenue-generating flight and created two new astronauts – well, one of them was already an astronaut but you know what I mean.

“Today we have shown that Virgin Galactic really can open space to change the world for good.”

The 68-year-old had been emotional throughout the flight, shedding many tears and hugging his son Sam as it eventually made its way to space altitudes.

He continued: “We will now push on with the remaining portion of our flight test programme 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 with the comsos.

“But let’s not forget that space is also hard and we daily recognise the commitment and sacrifice that has been so consistently shown by our amazing Mojave family.

“People have literally put their lives on the line to get us here. This day is as much for them as it is for all of us.”

Virgin Galactic
Celebrations at the Mojave test centre in California (Josh Payne/PA)

After arriving back at the test centre, the co-pilot, Mr Stucky, said: “It was a great flight. We would have been happy with a third of that.

“There are a lot of firsts here today but there are also some seconds. There have been two people before that have flown winged spacecraft to space and back.”

The pilot, Mr Sturckow, said: “It was a great flight and I look forward to doing it again.”