Richard Branson won the “billionaire space race” on Sunday by launching himself and five employees more than 50 miles above the earth to the point of weightlessness in his own Virgin Galactic rocket.
“It was the complete experience of a lifetime,” the beaming British entrepreneur, who will turn 71 in a week, said. “Now looking down at the spaceport, congratulations to everybody for creating such a beautiful plane and all the hard work for getting us this far.”
Branson and his crew took off early on Sunday from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Less than an hour after takeoff, the VSS Eve plane released its rocket at an altitude of 53 miles – beyond the 50-mile boundary considered by the US to be the boundary of space.
The crew was then able to unstrap themselves to experience a few minutes of weightlessness before gliding back to the spaceport.
After landing, Branson, who served as a mission specialist, jogged down the tarmac for an emotional reunion with his wife, children and grandchildren.
“Like most kids, I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid and honestly nothing could prepare you for the view from space,” Branson said in a ceremony with the crew to be awarded their wings.
Branson had joined the flight to test the customer experience for future space tourists.
“Initially, I thought testing the customer experience was a little bit of an excuse to get me on board. It wasn’t. It’s so great to get out there and test the customer experience,” he said. “You get lists and lists of the little things and it’s the little details that matter.”
Branson was not due to fly until later this summer but moved up his plans after fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos the boss of Amazon announced that he would be taking his own rocket into space from West Texas on July 20.
He has denied, however, that he was trying to beat the Blue Origin founder.
The Virgin test flight is the first mission for the company in which all six seats were fully occupied to go to the edge of space.
Before the launch, Branson posed for a photo with another billionaire space tourism entrepreneur, SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who was there to cheer him on.
Bezos, the third mogul in the “billionaire space race,” wished Branson luck on Instagram.
“Wishing you and the whole team a successful and safe flight. Best of luck!” he wrote.
The flight was intended to promote Virgin Galactic, which has already secured more than 600 reservations for its space tourism voyages, with tickets initially running US$250,000 apiece.
The launch was the company’s 22nd test flight of its SpaceShipTwo system, and its fourth crewed mission beyond Earth’s atmosphere.