- Richard Branson is accompanied by two pilots and three mission specialists.
- Branson, who turns 71 in a week, had originally planned the flight for later this summer.
- Virgin Galactic has plans for two more test flights before commercial service begins in 2022.
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. – Billionaire adventurer Richard Branson’s dream of space travel was being realized Sunday as Virgin Galactic’s space plane lifted off Sunday on a historic spaceflight from Spaceport America in Sierra County, New Mexico.
The flight, delayed 90 minutes, was expect to last about an hour.
Branson, who turns 71 this week, and a crew of two pilots and three mission specialists after being carried to high altitude by the aircraft VMS Eve, named after Branson’s mother. The space plane VSS Unity will then launch from Eve, using rocket power to fly to the boundary of space.
Virgin Galactic and founder Branson had planned the flight for later this summer but moved it up after competitor Blue Origin and its founder, Jeff Bezos, announced plans to ride their rocket into space from West Texas on July 20.
“It’s a beautiful day to go to space,” Branson tweeted Sunday.
A brief video accompanying the tweet showed Branson riding a bicycle up to the complex and hugging members of the crew.
Blue Origin, which in recent days has launched a social media campaign disparaging of Virgin Galactic, softened its tone Sunday, tweeting: “Wishing you a great flight tomorrow @virgingalactic!”
Branson and the crew should experience about four minutes of weightlessness before gliding back to Earth.
In keeping with Branson’s reputation as a showman, The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert was hosting Virgin Galactic’s livestream of the event. R&B singer-songwriter Khalid was scheduled to perform his new song “New Normal” on stage after Branson and his entourage return to Earth.
Virgin Galactic has plans for two more test flights before commercial service is expected to begin in 2022. The company says more than 600 people already have signed up for flights at an estimated $250,000 per person.
“My mission statement is to turn the dream of space travel into a reality – for my grandchildren, for your grandchildren, for everyone,” Branson tweeted hours before the scheduled flight.
Blue Origin has not begun to sell tickets but has dismissed Virgin Galactic’s flight plans as failing to actually reach space.
“Only 4% of the world recognizes a lower limit of 80 km or 50 miles as the beginning of space,” Blue Origin tweeted Friday. “New Shepard flies above both boundaries. One of the many benefits of flying with Blue Origin.”
Blue Origin launches capsules atop reusable booster rockets, while Virgin Galactic uses an aircraft to get its rocket ship aloft. The space plane is released from the mothership at about 44,000 feet, then fires its rocket motor to streak straight to space. Maximum altitude is about 55 miles, and passengers can expect three to four minutes of weightlessness.
Virgin Galactic’s efforts have come at a price. An earlier version of VSS Unity, the VSS Enterprise, broke apart during a 2014 test flight. One pilot died and another was injured.
Virgin Galactic reached space for the first time in 2018. Successful flights were also recorded in 2019 and most recently in May. The company gained permission from the Federal Aviation Administration last month to start launching customers.
Bacon reported from Arlington, Va. Contributing: The Associated Press
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