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Richard Branson Has Completed A Historic Trip To The Edge Of Space On Virgin Galactic

The rocket plane carrying Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and other crew members takes off from Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, N.M. Sunday, July 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
The rocket plane carrying Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and other crew members takes off from Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, N.M. Sunday, July 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Updated July 11, 2021 at 1:05 PM ET

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. The flight ushers in a new chapter in the world of aeronautics, with Virgin Galactic among a handful of ambitious and well-funded ventures racing to commercialize travel to space.

Lifting off from Spaceport America in Las Cruces, N.M., — a commercial space flight center about 180 miles south of Albuquerque —Branson was among a crew of four "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 a.m. local time.

As the mothership — manned by two pilots — approached more than 46,000 feet above 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 detached, an on-board rocket was engaged, shooting Galactic Unity 22 to a peak altitude of more than 282,000 feet.

While communications to the vessel were limited, Branson could be heard saying it was an "experience of a lifetime" and described looking down on the Spaceport as "beautiful."

He congratulated those involved in the project, including his crew.

Joining him on the Galactic Unity 22 were three employees from Virgin Galactic — Beth Moses, the chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations.

Branson and the three others on the craft were weightless for a few moments before the Galactic Unity 22 made its descent.

Branson said the trip was a lifelong dream

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 Virgin 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.

Billionaires like Branson are setting their sights on space

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 Shepard 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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.