[article] MOJAVE, Calif. -- Virgin Galactic, British billionaire Richard Branson’s commercial space venture, reached its highest altitude yet Friday in a supersonic rocket plane that’s set to carry paying customers into sub-orbit later this year. The company’s SpaceShipTwo blasted through the sound barrier and sped to Mach 1.4, climbing to 71,000 feet in its first powered test flight of the year. The flight, the program's third rocket-powered test flight, is the latest milestone in Virgin Galactic’s goal to take dozens of people into space multiple times each day. The test flight took place shortly after sunrise Friday beginning on the desert runway at Mojave Air and Space Port, about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. During the test, SpaceShipTwo was taken to about 46,000 feet by a carrier aircraft and dropped like a bomb. After a short free fall, test pilots Dave Mackay and Mark Stucky engaged the hybrid rocket motor, powered by nitrous oxide and a rubber compound, for about 16 seconds, at which point SpaceShipTwo accelerated to Mach 1.4. Mackay, who left his job as an airline captain at Virgin Atlantic to become chief pilot for the space company, was at the controls. It was his first powered flight. “To be behind the controls and fly it as the rocket ignited is something I will never forget,” he said. “She flew brilliantly.” The two pilots tested the spaceship’s reaction control system, which will allow it to maneuver in space, and a newly installed thermal protection coating on the vehicle’s tail booms. All of the flight objectives were successfully completed, the company said. The idea of Virgin Galactic routinely taking passengers into space this way was developed by retired maverick aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and his Mojave company, Scaled Composites.