By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN and MARCIA DUNN, Associated Press
Troy Warren for CNT
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. — Swashbuckling entrepreneur Richard Branson hurtled into space aboard his own winged rocket ship Sunday in his boldest adventure yet, beating out fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos.
The nearly 71-year-old Branson and five crewmates from his Virgin Galactic space tourism company reached an altitude of about 53 miles 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.
“Seventeen years of hard work to get us this far,” a jubilant Branson said as he congratulated his team on the trip back.
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 depart for space. (John Glenn flew on the shuttle at age 77 in 1998.)
With about 500 people watching, including Branson’s wife, children and grandchildren, a twin-fuselage aircraft with his space plane attached underneath took off in the first stage of the flight. Aboard were Branson and five crewmates from his Virgin Galactic space tourism company.
The space plane then detached from the mother ship at an altitude of about 8 ½ miles and fired its engine in a bid to reach the edge of space at about 55 miles up. After a few minutes of weightlessness for the crew, the space plane glided to a runway landing.
The rocket plane’s portion of the flight took 15 minutes.
The crowd cheered and yelled as it touched down on the runway. Some spectators jumped into the air. Others embraced and shared hugs.
“That was an amazing accomplishment,” former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, a one-time commander of the International Space Station, said from the sidelines. “I’m just so delighted at what this open door is going to lead to now. It’s a great moment.”
Virgin Galactic conducted three previous test flights into space with crews of two or three.
The flamboyant, London-born founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways wasn’t supposed to fly until later this summer. But he assigned himself to an earlier flight after Bezos announced plans to ride his own rocket into space from Texas on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Branson, who has kite-surfed the English Channel and attempted to circle the world in a hot-air balloon, denied he was trying to beat Bezos.
The flight was intended as a confidence-boosting plug for Virgin Galactic, which plans to start taking paying customers on joyrides next year.
“It’s a beautiful day to go to space,” Branson tweeted in the morning, posting a photo of himself with fellow billionaire and space tourism rival Elon Musk.
Before climbing aboard, the flamboyant, London-born Branson signed the astronaut log book and wisecracked: “The name’s Branson. Sir Richard Branson. Astronaut Double-oh one. License to thrill.”
More than 600 people have already made reservations for a ride into space with Virgin Galactic, founded in 2004.
Bezos’ Blue Origin has yet to open ticket sales or even announce prices, but late last week boasted via Twitter that it would take clients higher and offer bigger windows.
Blue Origin and Musk’s SpaceX both launch capsules atop rockets, instead of using an air-launched, resusable space plane.
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