TODAY   |  January 11, 2014

Virgin Galactic's spacecraft makes test flights

Virgin Galactic has been working toward commercial space travel for more than a decade, and the future seems to have nearly arrived. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.

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>>> blasting tourists into space may soon no longer be the stuff of science fiction . virgin galactic 's spaceship 2 successfully launched its third test flight on friday, which means more than 650 people who signed up could soon be headed to the stars. tom costello was there for the lift-off in the mojave desert . tom?

>> reporter: erica, good morning. the folks at virgin galactic are a short ways away from sending people up to space in this spaceship. in the demand for space tourism , they're building five more of the space crafts. sunrise in the mojave desert has virgin galactic 's spaceship 2 attached to its mother ship soared into the sky for a critical test flight . 15 minutes later, at 46,000 feet --

>> three, two, one.

>> reporter: -- spaceship 2 dropped from white night 2, then fired the rocket that pushed it to its highest altitude yet, 71,000 feet. by the end of the year, paying customers will take the same ride even higher, 325,000 feet and into space . former nasa shuttle flight director mike moses is now in charge of virgin galactic 's mission control .

>> i'll give you the command, it's okay to get out of your seats. you unbuckle your seat belt and you just float up and out --

>> reporter: for four minutes.

>> about four minutes, yep.

>> reporter: four minutes of weightlessness, the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth . it isn't cheap. each round-trip ticket costing $250,000. but already, 675 passengers have paid a deposit, including ashton kutcher , leonardo dicaprio , justin bieber, katy perry and stephen hawking . the hope of virgin's richard branson , that in a few years, his daily tourist flights into space will bring the price tag down to roughly the cost of an expensive suv.

>> after today's successful flight, it means we're getting closer and closer to going to space this summer, and i think we'll be giving our astronauts in waiting the ride of a lifetime.

>> reporter: this was the critical test of the ship that will make it all happen, including the fold-up wings that will help slow the spaceship on re-entry.

>> there's nothing else like this that you can pay the money for and get the sort of ride.

>> reporter: customers who go along for the ride will first have to go through three days of training and precipitation. nbc is teaming up with virgin galactic to document this entire experience as they go higher and higher , and ultimately, into space . we'll be along for the ride. erica, back to you.

>> quite a ride it will be. all right, tom costello, thanks.

>> they're apparently going to waive the check bag fee, i'm told.

>> how nice.

>> virgin galactic has working on building the space travel industry for over a decade. and jenna, i remember a few years ago, you did a story, the simulation training exercise for the flights.

>> went down with richard branson and his son. we had a good time! i mean, he was really wide-eyed and excited about this, and i had an amazing hairstyle. [ laughter ] we went into the centrifuge, which went, i think it was like 6 gs. and he was talking about this with such, such just excitement. yeah, i mean --

>> what was your quote there? ahhh!

>> what are you feeling? you have 6 gs, you said?

>> yeah, lester went up with the fighter jets .

>> fighter jets .

>> yeah. it's just, there was a lot of excitement surrounding this project, and the way he talked about it, i thought this was years and years and years into the future. and now, here we are. he's ready to go up. just shell out $250,000 and you could be one of the next to go up there.

>> having gone through that and the training, would you be able to actually do it for real?

>> it's an interesting question. i consider myself a daredevil and this scares me a little bit.

>> yeah?

>> so, i'd have to think about it. you guys wouldn't, right?

>> i'd like to see them get a few hundred flights under their belts.

>> lester does not want to be the tester. not in