Branson jets into space on test of Virgin spaceplane

British billionaire Richard Branson on Sunday soared more than 50 miles above the New Mexico desert aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket plane and safely returned.

A twin-fuselage jet took off yesterday carrying a Virgin Galactic rocket plane primed to soar more than 80 kilometers above the New Mexico desert with British billionaire Richard Branson aboard in the vehicle's first fully crewed test flight to space.

Branson, one of six Virgin Galactic Holding Inc employees strapping in for the flight, has touted the mission as a precursor to a new era of space tourism, with the company he founded poised to begin commercial operations next year.

Yesterday's high-altitude launch of the VSS Unity rocket plane marks the company's 22nd test flight of its SpaceShipTwo system, and its fourth crewed mission beyond Earth's atmosphere. It is also the first to carry a full complement of space travelers – two pilots and four "mission specialists," Branson among them.

A week away from his 71st birthday, Branson and his crewmates walked onto the tarmac of New Mexico's Spaceport America waving to a throng of onlookers before boarding waiting Unity rocket plane parked at the end of a taxiway.

Video posted online by Virgin Galactic showed Branson earlier arriving at the spaceport on his bicycle and greeting his crewmates with a hug.

A festive gathering of space industry executives, future customers and other well-wishers were on hand to witness the launch event, which was livestreamed in a presentation introduced by late-night television host Stephen Colbert. Among those present was fellow billionaire and space industry pioneer Elon Musk, who also is founder of electric carmaker Tesla Inc.

Into the blackness

Grammy-nominated R&B singer Khalid was due to take the stage after the flight to perform a forthcoming single "New Normal."

The gleaming white spaceplane was borne aloft attached to the underside of a specially designed twin-fuselage carrier jet VMS Eve – named for Branson's late mother.

Separating from the mothership when it reaches an altitude of 50,000 feet, Unity's rocket engine then ignite to send the spaceplane streaking straight upward to the blackness of space some 88.5 kilometers high, where the crew experienced about four minutes of microgravity.

With the engine shut down near the peak of its climb, the craft then shifted into re-entry mode before gliding back to a runway at the spaceport. The entire flight, from takeoff to touchdown, took about 90 minutes.

Virgin has plans for two further test flights of the in the months ahead before beginning regular commercial flights in 2022.

This is no discount travel service. But demand is strong, with several hundred wealthy would-be citizen astronauts already booking seats at US$250,000 each.

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