A malfunction on Virgin Galactic's commercial space travel plane saw the craft "drop like a rock" and nosedive towards earth during a test flight, it has been revealed.
Pilots were able to regain control of SpaceShipTwo and land the craft safely after the heart-stopping moment, space.com reported.
The event was seen as a source of embarrassment for Richard Branson, who has pioneered his space tourism company for years.
SpaceShipTwo, which is designed to make commercial flights, launched a test glide flight on 29 September from its spaceport in New Mexico. It was raised to high altitude by the WhiteKnightTwo, its carrier plane. But when the craft was released it immediately began to plummet to earth, carrying two pilots and an engineer.
One anxious observer told space.com: "It dropped like a rock and went straight down. Typically, it takes 11 minutes to land, but this time it was only seven minutes before they were on the ground. It was a nail-biter".
However, George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's CEO and president, remained upbeat about the glitch: "This is why we flight test, to fully explore the aerodynamic flight envelope."
Branson, who is hoping to start commercial space flights by 2013, opened a spaceport in New Mexico on Tuesday as part of the Virgin Galactic project.
The spaceport aims to offer 2.5 hour flights to the edge of space, with passengers experiencing five minutes of weightlessness, for around $200,000 (£127,000). More than 450 people are reported to have purchased tickets already.
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