TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. (NewsNation Now) — Thrill-seeking billionaire Richard Branson hurtled into space aboard his own winged rocket ship Sunday, bringing astro-tourism a step closer to reality and beating out his exceedingly richer rival Jeff Bezos.
The nearly 71-year-old Branson and five crewmates from his Virgin Galactic space-tourism company reached an altitude of 53.5 miles over the New Mexico desert — enough to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and witness the curvature of the Earth — and then glided back home to a runway landing.
“The whole thing, it was just magical,” a jubilant Branson said on his return aboard the gleaming white space plane, named Unity.
Branson became the first person to blast off in his own spaceship, beating Bezos, the richest person on the planet, by nine days.
“Congratulations on the flight,” Bezos said on Instagram. “Can’t wait to join the club!”
Branson also became the second septuagenarian to go into space. Astronaut John Glenn flew on the shuttle at age 77 in 1998.
Spectators cheered, jumped into the air and embraced as the rocket plane touched down on Earth. 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 grandchildren in his arms.
Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield pinned Virgin-produced astronaut wings onto the blue flight suits worn by Branson and his team. Official wing pins from the Federal Aviation Administration will be presented later, a company spokesman said.
A NewsNation crew caught up with Branson after his return to ask him if space travel will ever be affordable to the average dreamer
“I very much hope in the decades to come, it’ll be like airline travel was in the 1920s,” Branson told NewsNation. “We’ll be able to build more and more spaceships, we’ll be able to do more and more extraordinary things.”
Virgin Galactic plans to start taking paying customers on joyrides next year. Several hundred wealthy would-be citizen astronauts have already booked reservations, priced at around $250,000 per ticket.
Upon his return to Earth, Branson announced a sweepstake drawing for two seats on a Virgin Galactic jaunt.
NewsNation spoke with Laura Seward Forczyk, space professional, consultant, and author, about what the flight means for future space travel.
The 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.
Bezos’ Blue Origin company intends to send tourists past the so-called Karman line 62 miles above Earth, which is recognized by international aviation and aerospace federations as the threshold of space.
But NASA, the Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration, and some astrophysicists consider the boundary between the atmosphere and space to begin 50 miles up.
Blue Origin is waiting for Bezos’ flight before announcing its ticket prices.
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.”
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.
Ever the showman, Branson insisted on a global livestream of the Sunday morning flight and 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 dawning of space tourism — while CBS “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert served as master of ceremonies.
Before climbing aboard, Branson, who has kite-surfed the English Channel and attempted to circle the world in a hot-air balloon, signed the astronaut logbook and wisecracked: “The name’s Branson. Sir Richard Branson. Astronaut Double-oh-one. License to thrill.”
But asked afterward whether he is planning any more adventures, Branson said he will “definitely give it a rest for the time being” because “I’m not sure it would be fair to put my family through another one.” He said he thinks he holds the record for being pulled out of the sea five times by helicopter.
Blue Origin and Musk’s SpaceX both fly Apollo-style, using capsules atop rockets, instead of an air-launched, reusable spaceplane.
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. Customers 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.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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