Richard Branson has finally launched to the edge of space aboard his Virgin Galactic space plane, a flight more than 15 years in the making. The billionaire has narrowly become the first person to fly on a spacecraft of their own making, beating Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos by a matter of days.
On 11 July, the VSS Unity launched from New Mexico, taking Branson, two pilots and three other passengers on a 90-minute suborbital flight to an altitude of 85 kilometres.
“To all you kids down there, I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars,” Branson said in a broadcast during the flight. “Now I’m an adult, in a spaceship with lots of other wonderful adults, looking down to our beautiful, beautiful Earth.”
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Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 with the goal of providing suborbital flights to scientists and space tourists starting in 2009. Its main craft is SpaceShipTwo, a space plane that launches from a larger airplane mid-flight. The craft’s first iteration, the VSS Enterprise, crashed during a 2014 test flight, killing one pilot and badly injuring the other. As a result, the company paused testing until 2016, when it resumed with the VSS Unity.
The flight to 85 kilometres passed the US government’s definition of the boundary of space. The passengers, including Branson, were presented with commercial astronaut wings upon landing by Canadian former astronaut Chris Hadfield. The internationally held definition of space – the Kármán line – is 100 kilometres above Earth, and Bezos will attempt to cross it in his New Shepard spacecraft on 20 July.