TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. (AP) – Thrill-seeking billionaire Richard Branson has reached space aboard his own winged rocket ship in his boldest adventure yet.
The feat vaults the nearly 71-year-old Branson past fellow billionaire and rival Jeff Bezos, who is planning to fly to space in a craft of his own nine days from now. Branson and five crewmates from his Virgin Galactic space tourism company reached an altitude of about 53 miles (85 kilometers) over the New Mexico desert – enough to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth – and then safely glided back home to a runway landing.
“The whole thing, it was just magical,” a jubilant Branson said after the trip home aboard the gleaming white space plane, named Unity.
The brief, up-and-down flight — the space plane’s portion took only about 15 minutes, or about as long as Alan Shepard’s first U.S. spaceflight in 1961 — was a splashy and unabashedly commercial plug for Virgin Galactic, which plans to start taking paying customers on joyrides next year.
Branson became the first person to blast off in his own spaceship, beating Bezos by nine days. He also became only the second septuagenarian to go into space. Astronaut John Glenn flew on the shuttle at age 77 in 1998.
Bezos sent his congratulations, adding: “Can’t wait to join the club!” — though he also took to Twitter a couple of days earlier to enumerate the ways in which be believes his company’s rides will be better.