Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson flies to space aboard his own craft

After a lifetime of yearning to fly in space, Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson blasted off into space aboard his own winged rocket ship on Sunday in his boldest adventure yet and safely returned to Earth, landing in the New Mexico desert.

The thrill-seeking billionaire was joined in the historic flight by five employees from his space-tourism company.

“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.

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.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield watched Sunday’s flight with Virgin Galactic officials. He said it would be more comfortable than his past missions, because Branson had “the mother ship to gently carry them up.”

With a crowd of more than 500 people watching, a twin-fuselage craft with Branson’s space plane United 22 attached underneath took off in the first stage of the flight.

The space plane then detached from the mother ship at an altitude of about 13 kilometres, fired its rocket engine and then pierced the edge of space at about 88 kilometres up. After a few minutes of weightlessness for the crew, the space plane glided to a runway landing.

Branson counted down the days to liftoff via Twitter. He viewed the brief up-and-down trip as a confidence builder in his space-tourism company — not only for the 600-plus people already holding reservations for a joyride but for others thinking of plunking down a few hundred thousand dollars for a chance to leave Earth’s atmosphere.

Richard Branson, owner of the space-tourism company Virgin Galactic, takes in the view during Sunday’s flight. (Virgin Galactic)

The 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 ship into space from Texas on July 20.

Virgin Galactic doesn’t expect to start flying customers before next year. Bezos’s Blue Origin has yet to open ticket sales or even announce prices, but late last week it boasted via Twitter that it would take clients higher and offer bigger windows.

Unlike Blue Origin and Musk’s SpaceX, which launch capsules atop rockets, Virgin Galactic used a twin-fuselage craft to get its rocket ship aloft.

Virgin Galactic has made three previous test flights into space with a crew.