The Virgin boss was transported aboard his company’s space plane in his first full crew test.
As well as being a success – and a major publicity stunt – for the company, it also meant that Mr. Branson beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos in space. The Amazon founder will take a similar trip on July 20, aboard one of his own Blue Origin spaceships.
Blue Origin argued that Mr. Branson’s trip doesn’t really count as space travel, since he didn’t cross the Kármán line that generally defines the limit of space. Mr. Branson and Virgin Galactic’s Unity space plane reached a maximum height of about 280,000 feet, or 55 miles, before descending to Earth.
“Seventeen years of hard work to get us here,” said Mr. Branson jubilantly as he congratulated his team on the return.
Branson became the first person to take off in his own spaceship, beating Bezos by nine days. He also became the second septuagenarian to be launched into space. (John Glenn flew the Space Shuttle Discovery at age 77 in 1998.)
With around 500 people watching, including Mr Branson’s wife, children and grandchildren, a twin-fuselage aircraft with its spaceplane strapped underneath took off on the first leg of the flight.
The spacecraft then detached from the mothership at an altitude of about 44,880 feet, or 8.5 miles, and triggered its engine, reaching the edge of space. The entire round-trip flight aboard the sleek white ship, named Unity, took just under 15 minutes.
Virgin Galactic has made three previous test flights in space with crews of only two or three.
The flamboyant founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, born in London, was not supposed to fly until the end of the summer. But he assigned himself to an earlier flight after Mr Bezos announced his intention to fly his own rocket into space from Texas on July 20, on the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. .
Mr Branson, who has kitesurfed the English Channel and attempted to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon, denied attempting to beat Bezos.
Another of Mr. Branson’s main rivals in the race for space tourism among the world’s richest men, SpaceX’s Elon Musk, arrived in New Mexico to witness the flight, wishing Mr. Branson via Twitter, “Godspeed ! ”
Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin company intends to send tourists beyond the so-called Karman Line, 100 km above Earth, which is recognized by the international aviation and aviation federations. aerospace as the threshold of space.
But NASA, the US Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration and some astrophysicists consider that the border between atmosphere and space begins at 80 km.
The risks to Branson and his crew were highlighted in 2007 when a rocket motor test in California’s Mojave Desert killed three people, and in 2014, when a Virgin Galactic rocket plane crashed during ‘a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other.
Still the showman, Branson insisted on a global live broadcast of the Sunday morning flight and invited celebrities and former space station astronauts to the company’s Spaceport America base in New Mexico.
R&B singer Khalid was on hand to perform his new single “New Normal” – a nod to the dawn of space tourism – while CBS Last show host Stephen Colbert was the master of ceremonies for the event.
Virgin Galactic already has more than 600 bookings from future space tourists, with tickets initially costing $ 250,000 apiece. Blue Origin is awaiting Mr Bezos’ flight before announcing the price of his tickets.
While Musk himself has not made a commitment to go to space anytime soon, Musk’s SpaceX, which is already launching astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA and building lunar and Martian ships, is also in competition. for space tourism dollars. But its capsules will do more than brief forays up and down; they will go into orbit around the Earth, with seats costing millions. Its first private flight is scheduled for September.
“It’s a whole new horizon, new opportunities, new destinations,” said former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, who ordered the last shuttle flight 10 years ago. He now works for Boeing, which tests its own space capsule in flight.
“It’s really a bit like the advent of commercial air travel, just 100 years later,” added Ferguson. “There is a lot of waiting behind the scenes.
Additional reporting by Associated Press