Branson celebrates as rocket plane reaches space and returns home safe
A Virgin Galactic rocket plane has reached space and returned safely to the California desert, capping years of testing to become the first US commercial human flight to breach Earth's atmosphere since America's shuttle programme ended in 2011.
The successful test flight on Thursday is a step towards a new era of civilian space travel that could begin as soon as next year, with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic battling billionaire-backed ventures such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin to be the first to offer suborbital flights to fare-paying tourists.
Mr Branson, who said he personally put up $1bn toward the roughly $1.3bn development costs for Virgin's space businesses, said he viewed competition with Mr Bezos and others as a race, though passenger safety was the top priority. "Today we get to enjoy the fact we have put people into space before anybody else," Mr Branson said.
Virgin's twin-fuselage carrier aeroplane holding the SpaceShipTwo passenger spacecraft took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port, 145km north of Los Angeles.
British billionaire Mr Branson, wearing jeans and a leather bomber jacket with a fur collar, attended the take-off along with hundreds of spectators in the California desert.
After the rocket plane, also called the VSS Unity, reached an apogee of 83km above Earth, a crying Branson hugged his son and high-fived and hugged other spectators. The craft re-entered the atmosphere at 2.5 times the speed of sound and landed a few minutes later to cheers and applause, concluding roughly an hour's journey.
One of the pilots handed Branson a small Earth stress ball when the two hugged.
The test flight, the fourth mission during which VSS Unity flew under its own power, had pilots Mark Stucky and Frederick Sturckow on board, four Nasa research payloads and a mannequin named Annie as a stand-in passenger.
The next flight test is expected within the next couple of months, depending on data analysis from Thursday's flight, Virgin Galactic said.
Mr Branson has said Virgin's first commercial space trip with him on board would happen "in months and not years".
The carrier aeroplane hauled the SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket plane to an altitude of about 45,000ft (13.7km) and released it.
Seconds later, SpaceShipTwo fired, catapulting it to more than 80km above Earth, high enough for the pilots to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet.
Virgin's latest flight test comes four years after the original SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight that killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot.