Virgin Galactic flight carrying Richard Branson blasts off

Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic Holding Inc employees strapping in for the flight, has touted the mission as a precursor to a new era of space tourism, with the company he founded poised to begin commercial operations next year.

Sunday's high-altitude launch of the VSS Unity rocket plane marks the company's 22nd test flight of its SpaceShipTwo system, and its fourth crewed mission beyond Earth's atmosphere. It is also the first to carry a full complement of space travelers - two pilots and four "mission specialists," Branson among them.

The gleaming white spaceplane was borne aloft attached to the underside of a specially designed twin-fuselage carrier jet VMS Eve - named for Branson's late mother, which took off at around 10:40 a.m. EDT (1430 GMT).

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