Richard Branson and five others were launched more than 50 miles above the Earth in his own rocket on Sunday to promote Virgin Galactic, which has already secured over 600 bookings for its space tourism flights, with tickets starting at $250,000 each.
After rival billionaire Jeff Bezos had revealed on July 20 that he would launch his own rocket into space from West Texas, Branson pushed ahead with his plans though he had intended to fly later this summer. Branson, however, refuted that he was attempting to beat Blue Origin’s founder.
Branson and five staffers left Spaceport America in New Mexico, roughly 180 miles south of Albuquerque, shortly after 8:30 a.m. local time on Sunday, July 11. The happy British businessman, who will turn 71 in a week, said, “It was the complete experience of a lifetime.”
Before returning home to a runway landing, Branson and five Virgin Galactic crew members flew over the New Mexico desert to a height of 53.5 miles (86 kilometers), where they experienced three to four minutes of weightlessness and were able to view the Earth’s curves.
“Initially, I thought testing the customer experience was a little bit of an excuse to get me on it. It wasn’t … It’s so great to get out there and test the customer experience,” said Branson, who had agreed to take part in the voyage in order to evaluate the customer experience for future space tourism.
Branson responded that he will “definitely give it a rest for the time being” when asked if he has any more voyages planned because he was not sure it would be fair to put his family “through another one.” Branson also announced a lottery contest for two seats on a Virgin Galactic flight upon his comeback to the Earth.
With hopes to start giving paid joyrides next year, the short, up-and-down flight, which included approximately 15 minutes aboard the space plane, was a splashy and unabashedly commercial advertisement for Virgin Galactic. It was the company’s 22nd SpaceShipTwo test flight, and its fourth crewed voyage beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Three people died in a rocket motor experiment in California’s Mojave Desert in 2007, and a Virgin Galactic rocket plane broke apart during a test flight in 2014, killing one pilot and the other was seriously injured, which highlighted the dangers to Branson and his staff.
“Wishing you and the whole team a successful and safe flight tomorrow,” Bezos, the third billionaire in the “billionaire space race,” wrote on Instagram. “Best of luck!” he added, though he had already taken to Twitter to list how he feels his company’s tourist rides will be better. Before releasing ticket costs, Blue Origin is awaiting the flight of Jeff Bezos.
Branson also posted a selfie of himself with Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, who traveled to New Mexico to observe and wish Branson a “beautiful flight” before the launch.
SpaceX customers will spend days in orbit around the Earth, with seats costing millions of dollars instead of short excursions up and down. The first private flight for the corporation is scheduled for September.