Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic crew complete historic trip to the edge of space

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 in the vehicle’s first fully crewed test flight to space, a symbolic milestone for a venture he started 17 years ago.

Sunday’s launch of the VSS Unity passenger rocket plane marked the company’s 22nd test flight of its SpaceShipTwo system, and its fourth crewed mission beyond Earth’s atmosphere. It was also the first to carry a full complement of space travelers – two pilots and four “mission specialists,” Branson among them.

Heralding a new space tourism era, Branson reached space with three employees, including one of Indian-origin, leaving Jeff Bezos to follow his route on July 20. Bezos has been planning to fly aboard his own suborbital rocketship, the New Shepard, later this month.

Branson flew aboard his Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane, along with three company employees to the edge of space a little after 10:30 a.m. ET (8.00 pm India time).

Besides Branson, the flight included Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor and Colin Bennett, lead Operations Engineer and Indian-origin Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs at Virgin Galactic.

The pilots are Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci flying VSS Unity, and CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer flying VMS Eve.

Reaching its high-altitude launch point at about 46,000 feet, Unity was released from the mothership and fell away as its crew ignited the vehicle’s rocket, sending it streaking straight upward at supersonic speed to the blackness of space some 53 miles (85.9 km) high.

The 70-year-old arrived on a bike at the Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport located in Southern New Mexico. Virgin Galactic’s twin-fuselage WhiteKnight carrier aircraft carried the rocket-powered spaceship VSS Unity.

The flight was earlier scheduled for 6.30 pm (India time), but was delayed due to bad overnight weather in the launch area, the company shared in a tweet.

Virgin has said it plans at least two further test flights of the spaceplane in the months ahead before beginning regular commercial operation in 2022.

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