(CNN) - The race to put tourists into space seems to be a glacially slow one most of the time, and then BOOM -- it suddenly takes a supersonic leap forward.
That's the case with Richard Branson's long-delayed Virgin Galactic project, which on Thursday completed rocket-powered test flight at 2.47 times the speed of sound.
Carried up to an altitude of 46,500 feet over the Mojave Desert in California, Virgin's VSS Unity was released from its mother ship before blasting into the stratosphere.
With rockets blazing for 42 seconds, it then entered a near-vertical climb to 170,800 feet, approximately halfway to the edge of space.
The ship then glided back down to Earth, making a successful landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
"It was a thrill from start to finish," said David Mackay, who co-piloted Unity alongside Mike "Sooch" Masucci. "Unity's rocket motor performed magnificently again and Sooch pulled off a smooth landing."
The third rocket-powered outing in less than four months was hailed as the most successful yet for the project, which eventually aims to carry passengers and commercial payloads into space.
It was the first to reach the mesosphere, which Virgin Galactic describes as an "under-studied atmospheric layer" because it's beyond the range of balloon flight.
"This was a new altitude record for both of us in the cockpit, not to mention our mannequin in the back, and the views of Earth from the black sky were magnificent," Mackay added.
Last year, George Whitesides, the CEO of Virgin Galactic, said it was on track to begin commercial passenger space flights by the end of 2018.
Branson also predicted it would be up and running by December in an interview released on the eve of the latest test.
The billionaire has been making claims of imminent launch dates since 2013, but setbacks including a fatal accident in 2014 have stretched the time line.
If Virgin Galactic gets up and running, passengers paying north of $250,000 will experience a two-and-a-half-hour flight to the edge of space. The flight will culminate with several minutes of weightlessness during which they'll be able to float from their seats.
While the ticket price will put it out reach for most people, it'll still come cheaper than a prolonged sojourn in space, which can cost many millions of dollars.
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