In 2004, British billionaire Richard Branson proclaimed he would fly into space on his company’s spaceship in just three years to kick off what he hoped would become a routine travel experience, drinks and all.
Nearly 17 years after that proclamation, he finally did it.
Branson, along with five other Virgin Galactic employees — two pilots and three others who are testing parts of the in-cabin experience — launched to suborbital space on the company’s first flight with a full crew aboard. The carrier aircraft with the spaceship attached to its belly took off around 7:40 a.m. Pacific time Sunday from a New Mexico spaceport near the city of Truth or Consequences.
The spaceship detached from the carrier aircraft about 50 minutes after launch, once it reached an altitude of about 45,000 feet and a designated release point in the airspace. The ship then rocketed itself to suborbital space.
The livestream of the mission was hosted by, among others, Stephen Colbert. The live video showed the crew floating in the cabin once the craft reached space. As it returned to Earth, Branson — wearing sunglasses — told viewers on the livestream that it was the “experience of a lifetime.”
The ship landed back at the spaceport around 8:40 a.m. Pacific time, about 14 minutes after it detached from the carrier aircraft. Video inside the cabin showed Branson clapping at touchdown.
The flight put Branson in space ahead of billionaire rival Jeff Bezos, who is due to launch to suborbital space July 20 in a capsule developed by his Blue Origin space company.
Like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin plans to sell tickets to tourists who want to experience a few minutes of weightlessness in suborbital space. Bezos’ company is also developing a larger rocket called New Glenn intended to launch satellites, and it had hoped to win a NASA contract with Lockheed Martin, Draper and Northrop Grumman to build a lunar lander that was instead awarded to Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Sunday’s flight marks a milestone for the 17-year-old Virgin Galactic, which spent years developing its SpaceShipTwo craft and larger carrier aircraft.
The company has faced its share of setbacks.
In 2014, an earlier version of SpaceShipTwo broke apart in midair during a powered test flight, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold. The National Transportation Safety Board later concluded that the crash was caused by pilot error and faulted the craft’s builder, Scaled Composites, and the Federal Aviation Administration for failing to create enough safeguards to prevent the accident.
Virgin Galactic brought spaceship construction and development in-house and unveiled a new SpaceShipTwo in 2016. The space plane reached suborbital space for the first time during a 2018 test flight, putting Virgin Galactic closer to its goal of flying tourists who pay for the ride. The company charges as much as $250,000 per ticket and has about 600 people in line.
But after a test flight in 2019, company officials found that a seal had come undone along a stabilizer on the space plane’s wing, which helps keep the plane flying straight, according to a recent book about the company. “Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut,” by Nicholas Schmidle, quotes Virgin Galactic’s then-vice president for safety and test as saying, “I don’t know how we didn’t lose the vehicle and kill three people.”
A Virgin Galactic official told The Washington Post that although there was damage to the stabilizer, it had no effect on the flying qualities of the space plane and that the company was already implementing an updated stabilizer design for the subsequent spaceship.
Branson recently told The Associated Press that it was “very important” for potential customers to see him in the spacecraft.
The company has said it expects to complete two more test flights before it begins flying customers to space next year.