Billionaire and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson along with the July 11 spaceflight crew (Image: Virgin Galactic)
Swashbuckling entrepreneur Richard Branson hurtled into space aboard his own winged rocket ship Sunday in his boldest adventure yet, beating out fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos.
The nearly 71-year-old Branson and five crewmates from his Virgin Galactic space tourism company reached an altitude of about 53 miles (88 kilometers) over the New Mexico desert — enough to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth — and then safely glided home to a runway landing.
“Seventeen years of hard work to get us this far,” a jubilant Branson said as he congratulated his team on the trip back aboard the sleek white space plane, named Unity.
The brief, up-and-down flight was intended as a confidence-boosting plug for Virgin Galactic, which plans to start taking paying customers on joyrides next year.
Branson became the first person to blast off in his own spaceship, beating Bezos by nine days. He also became only the second septuagenarian to depart for space. (John Glenn flew on the shuttle at age 77 in 1998.)
With about 500 people watching, including Branson’s wife, children and grandchildren, a twin-fuselage aircraft with his space plane attached underneath took off in the first stage of the flight.
The space plane then detached from the mother ship at an altitude of about 8 1/2 miles (13 kilometers) and fired its engine, reaching more than Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, as it pierced the edge of space.
The rocket plane’s portion of the flight took just 15 minutes.
The crowd cheered and yelled as it touched down on the runway. Some spectators jumped into the air. Others embraced and shared hugs.
“It’s a beautiful day to go to space,” Branson tweeted in the morning, posting a photo of himself with fellow billionaire and space-tourism rival Elon Musk.
The London-born founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, who turns 71 in a week, wasn’t supposed to fly until later this summer. But he assigned himself to an earlier flight after fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos announced plans to ride his own rocket ship into space from Texas on July 20.
Virgin Galactic doesn’t expect to start flying customers before next year. Bezos’ Blue Origin has yet to open ticket sales or even announce prices, but late last week boasted via Twitter that it would take clients higher and offer bigger windows.
Unlike Blue Origin and Musk’s SpaceX, which launch capsules atop rockets, Virgin Galactic uses a twin-fuselage aircraft to get its rocket ship aloft. The space plane is then released from the mother ship at about 8 miles (13 kilometers) up, and fires its engine to streak straight to space. Maximum altitude is roughly 55 miles (70 kilometers), with three to four minutes of weightlessness provided.
The rocket plane then glides to a runway landing at Virgin’s Spaceport America base.
Virgin Galactic made three previous test flights into space with a crew