Richard Branson, the swashbuckling entrepreneur, flew into space on his own winged rocket ship on Sunday, defeating fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos in his most daring escapade yet. Branson, who is nearly 71 years old, and his Virgin Galactic crew reached an altitude of around 53 miles (88 kilometres) over the New Mexico desert, high enough to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and witness the Earth's curvature, before safely gliding to a runway landing.
After the trip home aboard the sleek, white space plane named Unity, Branson said, "The whole thing was just fantastic."
The 15-minute up-and-down flight of the rocket ship part, which was about the same length as Alan Shepard's first U.S. spaceflight in 1961, was intended as a confidence-boosting advertisement for Virgin Galactic, which wants to begin taking paying clients on joyrides next year.
Branson beat Bezos by nine days to become the first person to launch his own spaceship. He was also the first septuagenarian to travel into space. (Astronaut John Glenn, who was 77 at the time, travelled aboard the shuttle in 1998.)
In the first stage of the flight, a twin-fuselage aircraft with Unity attached below took off in front of roughly 500 people, including Branson's family.
At a height of around 8 1/2 miles (13 kilometres), Unity separated from the mother ship and started its engine, reaching more than Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, when it penetrated the boundary of space.
As the rocket plane touched down, spectators applauded, leapt into the air, and hugged. As he came out onto the runway, he pumped his fists and dashed toward his family, hugging his wife and children and scooping up his three grandchildren in his arms.
Sirisha Bandla, an aeronautical engineer, joined British entrepreneur Richard Branson on Virgin Galactic's first fully crewed suborbital test flight from New Mexico on Sunday, becoming the third Indian-origin woman to journey into space.
From the sidelines, former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, a one-time commander of the International Space Station, observed, "That was a fantastic accomplishment." “I'm really overjoyed at what this now-open door will lead to. It's a fantastic time. Virgin Galactic has now completed three test flights into space with crews of only two or three.”