TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. (AP
) — Swashbuckling entrepreneur Richard Branson
rocketed into space Sunday aboard his own winged rocket ship, defeating fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos
The nearly 71-year-old Branson and five Virgin Galactic
crewmates 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
— before safely gliding home to a runway landing.
“Seventeen years of hard work
to get us this far,” a ecstatic Branson exclaimed as he congratulated his team on the successful return flight aboard the sleek white space plane named Unity.
The brief, up-and-down flight was designed to instill confidence in Virgin Galactic, which plans to begin taking paying customers on joyrides next year.
Branson became the first person to launch his own spaceship, beating Bezos by nine days, and only the second septuagenarian to do so (John Glenn flew on the shuttle in 1998 at the age of 77).
In the first stage of the flight, a twin-fuselage aircraft with Branson's space plane attached underneath took off in front of 500 people
, including Branson's wife
, and grandchildren.
The space plane then separated from the mother ship at an altitude of approximately 8 1/2 miles (13 kilometers) and fired its engine, reaching speeds of more than Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, as it pierced the edge of space.
The rocket plane's flight took only 15 minutes.
As the plane touched down on the runway, the crowd cheered and yelled, and some spectators leapt into the air, while others hugged and kissed.
“That was an incredible accomplishment,” former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, a former 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 has previously conducted three test flights into space with crews of two or three people.
The flamboyant, London-born founder of Virgin Atlantic
Airways was supposed to fly later this summer, but he assigned himself to an earlier flight after Bezos announced plans to launch his own rocket into space from Texas
on July 20, the 52nd anniversary
of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Branson, who has kite-surfed the English Channel and attempted to circumnavigate the globe in a hot-air balloon, has denied attempting to outdo Bezos.
Before boarding, Branson wrote in the astronaut log book
, "The name's Branson. Sir Richard Branson. Astronaut Double-oh one. License to thrill."
and one of Branson's main competitors in the race for space tourism among the world's richest men, arrived in New Mexico to witness
the flight, wishing Branson "Godspeed!" via Twitter
Bezos, too, sent his best wishes for a safe and successful flight, but he also took to Twitter to list the ways he believes his company's flights will be improved.
, Bezos' company, plans to fly tourists past the so-called Karman line, which is 62 miles (100 kilometers) above Earth and is recognized as the space threshold by international aviation and aerospace federations.
, the Air Force
, the Federal Aviation Administration
, and some astrophysicists believe that the boundary between the atmosphere and space begins 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the ground.
The dangers to Branson and his crew were highlighted in 2007, when three workers were killed during a rocket motor test in California
's Mojave Desert, and in 2014, when a Virgin Galactic rocket plane broke up during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other.
Branson, ever the showman, insisted on a global livestream of the flight on Sunday morning, and he invited celebrities
and former space station astronauts
to the company's Spaceport America
base in New Mexico.
R&B singer Khalid performed his new single "New Normal," a nod to the dawn of space tourism, while CBS "Late Show" host Stephen Colbert
served as master of ceremonies.
Virgin Galactic has already received over 600 reservations from would-be space tourists, with tickets initially costing $250,000 each, while Blue Origin is waiting for Bezos' flight before announcing ticket prices.
Kerianne Flynn, who joined Virgin Galactic in 2011, was nervous about the launch on Sunday.
“I think there will be nothing like going up there and looking back down on Earth, which is what I think I'm most excited about,” she said, adding, “Hopefully the next generations will be able to explore what's up there.”
Musk's SpaceX, which is already launching astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA and building moon and Mars
ships, is also competing for space tourism dollars. However, its capsules will do more than just make brief, up-and-down forays; they will go into orbit around the Earth, with seats costing millions of dollars. Its first private flight is scheduled for September.
Musk has stated that he has no plans to travel to space in the near future.
“It’s a whole new horizon out there, new opportunities, new destinations,” said former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, who led the last shuttle flight ten years ago and now works for Boeing, which is testing its own space capsule.
“This is really similar to the advent of commercial air travel
, only 100 years later,” Ferguson added, “and there’s a lot waiting in the wings.”
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education
provides funding to the Associated Press Health
and Science Department, but the AP is solely responsible for all content.
Dunn filed this report from Cape Canaveral, Florida