British billionaire Richard Branson flew into space Sunday aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel, a voyage he described as the “experience of a lifetime” — and one he hopes will usher in an era of lucrative space tourism.
“Congratulations to all our wonderful team at Virgin Galactic for 17 years of hard, hard work to get us this far,” he said during a live feed as the VSS Unity spaceship glided back to Spaceport America in New Mexico.
It reached a peak altitude of around 53 miles (85 kilometres) — beyond the boundary of space, according to the United States — allowing the passengers to experience weightlessness and admire the Earth’s curvature.
The trip proceeded without drama, and touchdown occurred at around 9:40 am Mountain Time (1540 GMT), about an hour after take-off.
The mission’s success means Branson has beaten fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos in the race to be the first tycoon to cross the final frontier in a ship built by a company he founded.
Earlier, a massive carrier plane took off and ascended to 50,000 feet before dropping VSS Unity to complete the rest of the flight using its rocket-powered engine.
The spaceplane carried two pilots and four passengers, including Branson.
The ship then re-entered the atmosphere, lowered its flexible wings and glided back to the runway.
A smiling Branson hugged loved ones after the trip.
“It’s a beautiful day to go to space,” the brash Brit wrote in a tweet earlier where he posted a video of himself biking to the base and meeting with his crewmates, all Virgin employees.
He also posted a picture of himself standing in a kitchen with SpaceX boss Elon Musk, who’d come to show his support.
Several tourists journeyed to the International Space Station in the 2000s, but on Russian rockets.
Branson’s official role is to evaluate the private astronaut experience to enhance the journey for future clients.
Branson, who founded the Virgin Group that today has interests in everything from commercial aviation to fitness centres, is known for his appetite for adventure and has set world records in hot air ballooning and boating.
“As a child, I wanted to go to space,” the 70-year-old wrote a few days ahead of his trip.
He founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, but the dream almost came to an end in 2014 when an in-flight accident caused the death of a pilot, considerably delaying the program.
Since then, VSS Unity has successfully reached space three times, in 2018, 2019 — which included the first crew member who wasn’t a pilot — and finally in May this year.
Sunday’s flight left from Spaceport America, a huge base built in the Jornada del Muerto desert, around 20 miles southeast of the nearest town, Truth or Consequences.
Financed largely by the state of New Mexico, Virgin Galactic is the principal tenant.
Paying passengers in 2022?
After Sunday, Virgin Galactic plans two further flights, and then the start of regular commercial operations from early 2022. The ultimate goal is to conduct 400 flights per year.
Some 600 tickets have already been sold to people from 60 different countries — including Hollywood celebrities — for prices ranging from $200,000 to $250,000.
And though, according to Branson, “space belongs to us all,” the opportunity, for now, remains the preserve of the privileged.
“When we return, I will announce something very exciting to give more people the chance to become an astronaut,” he promised.
The competition in the space tourism sector, whose imminent rise has been announced for years, has come to a head this month.
Bezos, the richest person in the world, is due to fly on July 20 on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.
Blue Origin posted an infographic Friday boasting the ways in which the experience it offers is superior.
The principal point: New Shepard climbs up to more than 60 miles in altitude, thus exceeding what is called the Karman line, the frontier of space according to international convention.
Bezos himself wished Branson “best of luck” in an Instagram post.