Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic crew blasted to the edge of space from New Mexico on Sunday, fulfilling a 17-year ambition for the British billionaire and opening the latest chapter in commercial space tourism.
The rocket plane called a SpaceShipTwo took off from Spaceport America, about 180 miles south of Albuquerque, with two pilots and four people in the cabin.
A mother ship plane took the ship, the V.S.S. Unity, to an altitude of 50,000 feet before the rocket plane kicked in and separated at 11:25 a.m. to take passengers 50 miles above the Earth. They got a view of the planet that few people have enjoyed.
“The views are breathtaking, there is no question. We are so lucky to have this planet we all live on,” Mr. Branson said after the flight. “It is indescribable.”
There is debate about whether the ship actually reached space — it didn’t enter orbit — but passengers felt a period of weightlessness before the plane tipped back to Earth and glided to a safe landing before noon.
Mr. Branson joins Elon Musk, of SpaceX and Tesla fame, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in the billionaires’ race to space.
Their investments ushered in a phase of exploration that banks on private industry and public-private partnerships instead of keeping space travel within the purview of NASA.
SpaceX launched a crewed trip to the International Space Station in 2020 and Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin will head to space later this month with the former Amazon CEO aboard.
Mr. Musk was on hand in New Mexico to cheer on Mr. Branson, the adventurous leader of Virgin companies known for his white-blond locks and daredevil promotions.
The trips are wowing modern society while sparking debates about the environmental impact of the endeavors and whether the money is well-spent, given humanity’s problems on the ground.
For now, trips to space are open to an exclusive club of the wealthy.
“I’ve known Richard for years,” late-night TV host Stephen Colbert said in the introduction. “I’ve never been to his private island, but that’s OK.”
Trips to space are open to an exclusive club of the wealthy, at least for now, though cameras were aboard the Virgin Galactic to transmit images back to everyone on Earth.
The Virgin Galactic team said everything went off without a hitch except for a few transmission problems from the cabin. The action was recorded inside the cabin, however, so images will be available.
“I definitely want to see the tapes,” Mr. Branson said.