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Branson Beats Jeff Bezos to Space, Aiming to Open Space Tourism

by Mary Sewell

SPACEPORT AMERICA, N.M. — Soaring more than 50 miles into the hot, glaringly bright skies above New Mexico, Richard Branson at last fulfilled a dream that took decades to realize: He can now call himself an astronaut. On Sunday morning, a small rocket plane operated by Virgin Galactic, Mr. Branson founded in 2004, carried him and five other people to the edge of space and back.

More than an hour later, Mr. Branson took the stage to celebrate. “The whole thing was magical,” he said.

Later, during a news conference, Mr. Branson was still giddy, saying, “I don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth because I feel I’m still in space. Mr. Branson’s flight reinforces the hopes of space enthusiasts that routine travel to the final frontier may soon be available to private citizens, not just the professional astronauts of NASA and other space agencies. Another billionaire with his own rocket company — Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon — has plans to make a similar jaunt to the edge of space in nine days.

In each case, billionaire entrepreneurs are risking injury or death to fulfill their childhood aspirations — and advance the goal of making human spaceflight unexceptional. They’re putting their money where their mouth is, and they’re putting their body where their money is,” said Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures Limited, a company that charters launch to orbit. “That’s impressive, frankly.

At 8:40 a.m., Mountain Time, a carrier aircraft, with the rocket plane, named V.S.S. Unity, tucked underneath, rose off the runway and headed to an altitude of about 45,000 feet. There, Unity was released, and a few moments later, its rocket motor ignited, accelerating the space plane on an upward arc. Although Unity had made three previous trips to space, this was its first launch that resembled a full commercial flight of the sort that Virgin Galactic has promised to offer the general public, with two pilots — David Mackay and Michael Masucci — and four more crew members including Mr. Branson.

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