Sir Richard Branson and a crew of three others grazed the edge of space on Sunday in a rocket built by the British billionaire’s company, Virgin Galactic.
Lifting off from Spaceport America in Las Cruces, N.M., — a commercial space flight center owned and operated by the state of New Mexico about 180 miles south of Albuquerque —Branson was among three other “mission specialists” who reached speeds three times the speed of sound.
The spacecraft, which was attached to a larger plane, taxied across a runway at Spaceport America before lifting off at about 8:40 local time.
As the mothership — manned by two pilots — approached more than 46,000 feet above the earth’s surface, Virgin Galactic live streamed a video of vignettes about the vessel, interviews with NASA astronauts and other material hosted by late night comedian Stephen Colbert.
The ascent to the launch — where the mothership released the Galactic Unity 22 — lasted nearly 50 minutes. Once launched, rockets were engaged, shooting Galactic Unity 22 to a peak altitude of more than 282,000 feet.
Branson and the three others on the craft were weightless for a few moments before the Galactic Unity 22 made its descent.
Branson told NPR’s Morning Edition this past week that he’d yearned for such a trip since he was a child.
“I was a kid once, standing with my dad and my sister, looking up at the moon, being told that Buzz and Neil were standing on it,” Branson said, referring to the famous Apollo 11 astronauts. “And I just thought, I’ve got to go to space one day.”
Sunday’s launch was pushed back about 90 minutes from its original start time because weather conditions overnight resulted in a delay of the spacecraft leaving its hangar. But as the sun rose, conditions at the launch site looked favorable for the flight.
First registering the name Virginia Galactic in 2004, Branson’s effort to launch into space has demanded the work of hundreds of engineers and millions of dollars. Once believing it might take six or seven years to achieve the goal of going to space, it’s taken more than twice that long for Branson’s company, which endured a fatal test flight in 2014.
Branson — whose 71st birthday is a week from Sunday — is one in a trio of billionaire businessmen who’ve launched commercial space flight ventures..
Jeff Bezos, the founder and executive chairman of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post, is set to take his company Blue Origin to space on July 20. In June, Bezos auctioned off the first seat on the company’s New Shepherd spacecraft for $28 million.
Elon Musk, the CEO and chief engineer of Space X, has also been in pursuit of creating commercial space flight opportunities.
While competition between the three men has been the focal point in recent months, Branson and Musk appeared to be in a celebratory mood Sunday before the Virgin Galactic flight.
“Big day ahead. Great to start the morning with a friend. Feeling good, feeling excited, feeling ready,” Branson tweeted in the morning, posting a photo of himself with Musk.
After a series of exchanges on the social media platform, Musk tweeted back, “Godspeed!”
Virgin Galactic’s current flagship, SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, has a maximum capacity of eight people, including two pilots and six passengers.
The company aims to begin launching customers in 2022, with tickets selling for $250,000 apiece. More than 600 people have already purchased tickets for the near-space joyride.