British billionaire Sir Richard Branson has heralded the dawn of space tourism by becoming the first billionaire to make it into space on a ground-breaking flight outside the Earth's atmosphere. He is also the second oldest man to travel to space at the age of 70, beating rival Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to it. (John Glenn flew on the shuttle at age 77 in 1998.)
Sir Richard, who as a child dreamed of travelling to space ever since the cold war vibes between the US and the Soviet Union, was one of six Virgin Galactic Holding Inc employees on board the VSS Unity space plane attached to the twin-fuselage aircraft.
They reached an altitude of about 88 kilometres 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.
The brief, up-and-down flight was intended as a confidence-boosting plug for Virgin Galactic, which plans to start taking paying customers on joyrides next year.
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. Another one of Branson's chief rivals in the space-tourism race among the world's richest men, SpaceX's Elon Musk, arrived in New Mexico to witness the flight, wishing Branson via Twitter, "Godspeed!"
Ever the showman, Branson insisted on a global livestream of the Sunday morning flight and invited celebrities and former space station astronauts to the company's Spaceport America base in New Mexico.
Aeronautical engineer Sirisha Bandla on Sunday became the third Indian-origin woman to fly into space when she joined Richard Branson on Virgin Galactic's first fully crewed suborbital test flight from New Mexico. Bandla was born in Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh and brought up in Houston; she became the third Indian-origin woman to fly into space after Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams.