Billionaire Richard Branson Reaches Space, Safely Returns to Earth

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Swashbuckling entrepreneur Richard Branson hurtled into space aboard his own winged rocket ship Sunday, 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 85 kilometers (53 miles) over the New Mexico desert — enough to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and witness the curvature of the Earth — and then safely glided to a runway landing.

"The whole thing, it was just magical," a jubilant Branson said after the trip home aboard the gleaming white space plane, named Unity.  

The brief, up-and-down flight — the space plane's portion took only about 15 minutes, or about as long as Alan Shepard's first U.S. spaceflight in 1961 — was a splashy and unabashedly commercial 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 go into space. Astronaut John Glenn flew on the shuttle at age 77 in 1998.

Bezos sent his congratulations, adding: "Can't wait to join the club!" — though he also took to Twitter a couple of days earlier to enumerate the ways in which he believes his company's rides will be better.

With about 500 people watching, including Branson's family, Unity was carried aloft underneath a twin-fuselage aircraft. Then, at an altitude of about 13 kilometers (8½ miles), Unity detached from the mother ship and fired its engine, reaching more than Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, as it pierced the edge of space.  

Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity, carrying billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson and his crew, begins its ascent to the edge of space above Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, July 11, 2021.
Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity, carrying billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson and his crew, begins its ascent to the edge of space above Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, July 11, 2021.

Spectators cheered, jumped into the air and embraced as the rocket plane touched down. Branson pumped his fists as he stepped out onto the runway and ran toward his family, bear-hugging his wife and children and scooping up his three grandchildren into his arms.

Mike Moses, a top executive at Virgin Galactic, said that apart from some problems with the transmission of video images from inside the cabin, the flight was perfect, and the ship looked pristine.

"That was an amazing accomplishment," former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, a one-time commander of the International Space Station, said from the sidelines. "I'm just so delighted at what this open door is going to lead to now. It's a great moment."

Virgin Galactic conducted three previous test flights into space with crews of just two or three.

The flamboyant, London-born founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways wasn't supposed to fly until later this summer. But he assigned himself to an earlier flight after Bezos announced plans to ride his own rocket into space from Texas on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Branson denied he was trying to outdo Bezos.

Branson's other chief rival in the space-tourism race among the world's richest men, SpaceX's Elon Musk, came to New Mexico to watch and congratulated Branson for a "beautiful flight."

Bezos' Blue Origin company intends to send tourists past the so-called Karman line 100 kilometers (62 miles) above Earth, which is recognized by international aviation and aerospace federations as the threshold of space.

Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity is towed to a hangar after reaching the edge of space, at Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, July 11, 2021.
Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity is towed to a hangar after reaching the edge of space, at Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, July 11, 2021.

But NASA, the Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration and some astrophysicists consider the boundary between the atmosphere and space to begin 80 kilometers (50 miles) up.

The risks to Branson and his crew were underscored in 2007, when a rocket motor test in California's Mojave Desert left three workers dead, and in 2014, when a Virgin Galactic rocket plane broke apart during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other.

Upon his return to Earth, Branson announced a sweepstakes drawing for two seats on a Virgin Galactic jaunt.

Virgin Galactic already has more than 600 reservations from would-be space tourists, with tickets initially costing $250,000 apiece. Blue Origin is waiting for Bezos' flight before announcing its ticket prices.

Blue Origin and Musk's SpaceX both fly Apollo-style, using capsules atop rockets, instead of an air-launched, reusable space plane.

SpaceX, which is already launching astronauts to the space station for NASA and building moon and Mars ships, plans to take tourists on more than just brief, up-and-down trips. They will instead go into orbit around the Earth for days, with seats costing well into the millions. The company's first private flight is set for September.

Musk himself has not committed to going into space anytime soon.
 

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