Sir Richard Branson has described watching in awe as the Virgin Galactic spaceship, which will take tourists into space, made its first powered test flight over the Mojave desert.
He said it seemed a "a bit surreal" to be contemplating going into space and confirmed he intended to be on the initial flight by year's end. He said: "I certainly do and it looks like it might be sooner than I thought. In 1991 we registered the name Virgin Galactic and ever since then we've been trying to build a spaceship. We saw history in the making today and I couldn't be more proud of everyone involved. It couldn't have gone more smoothly."
For the test flight a special twin-fuselage jet called WhiteKnightTwo spent 45 minutes carrying SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 48,000ft before it was released.
The pilots then triggered SpaceShipTwo's rocket engine which burned for 16 seconds, propelling it to an altitude of 55,000ft and a speed of Mach 1.2, breaking the sound barrier.
After a 10-minute flight SpaceShipTwo glided to a safe landing at Mojave Air and Space Port in the desert north of Los Angeles.
Previous test flights had only involved the spaceship gliding without firing its rocket engine.
Sir Richard said: "Having spaceship and rocket perform together in the air is a long way toward getting into space. A few more test flights with slightly bigger burns every time, and then we'll all be back here to watch it go into space."
The hundreds of tourists who have signed up will pay $200,000 to take off from a "spaceport" in New Mexico. They will experience weightlessness and view the curvature of the Earth from 62 miles up.
Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides told the Telegraph: "The first time you go supersonic with a new vehicle is a big test. We did a lot of work in the lead up and it went great, everything we hoped for, and the rocket burned very well."