British billionaire Richard Branson climbed more than 80 kilometers over the New Mexico desert on Sunday, aboard a rocket-propelled vehicle belonging to his company, “Virgin Galactic”, and returned safely on the first fully manned test flight of the spacecraft, which represents a milestone in a project he started 17 years ago.
Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic employees who took off on the flight, touted the mission as the start of a new era of space tourism, as the company he founded in 2004 prepares to start commercial operations next year.
The success of the flight also gave Branson the bragging rights of beating rival Jeff Bezos, founder of rival space tourism company Blue Origin, in what has been known as the “billionaire space race”. Bezos, the founder of the giant Amazon, is scheduled to travel to space this month.
The launch of the Unity rocket-propelled plane represented the 22nd test flight of Virgin Galactic’s (SpaceShipTwo) system, and its fourth manned mission outside the Earth’s atmosphere. It is also the first flight to carry a full group of space travelers, two pilots and four professionals, including Branson.
A week after his 71st birthday, Branson and his colleagues walked down the runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico, waving to a crowd of onlookers before boarding the parked Unity missile plane at the end of the runway.
The white spaceplane took off while attached to the underside of the twin-hull carrier (Eve) after Branson’s late mother, which took off in the morning, and after reaching its very high launch point at about 46,000 feet, Unity separated from the mother plane after its crew fired the rocket engine For the spacecraft to ascend at the speed of sound to a height of 85.9 kilometers in space.
With the rocket engine shut off at peak ascent, the crew experienced weightlessness for a few minutes before switching to re-entry and landing again. The entire journey, from take-off to landing, took about an hour.
Although the mission is seen as a potential milestone in helping to turn citizen space travel into a big business, spaceflight remains fraught with danger.