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Billionaire Richard Branson goes into space, lands safely

By
Allen Cone and Paul Brinkmann
Richard Branson delivers a message from space aboard SpaceShip Two after takeoff from Spaceport America, N.M., on Sunday. Photo courtesy Virgin Galactic/EPA-EFE
Richard Branson delivers a message from space aboard SpaceShip Two after takeoff from Spaceport America, N.M., on Sunday. Photo courtesy Virgin Galactic/EPA-EFE

July 11 (UPI) -- Billionaire co-founder Richard Branson and five other passengers successfully launched into the edges of space Sunday morning, about 50 miles above Earth.

Virgin Galactic's reusable SpaceShipTwo returned to Spaceport America, about 170 miles south of Albuquerque, N.M., in the desert after taking off from the same runway attached beneath to a twin-fuselage jet.

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Branson declared at a news conference: "If you ever had a dream, now is the time to make it come true. I'd like to end by saying welcome to the dawn of a new space age."

It was the fourth test flight of the system.

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SpaceShipTwo was launched attached to WhiteKnightTwo, a four-engine aircraft that looks like two jets and later landed. This actual WhiteKnightTwo is called VMS Eve and is named after his mother Eve, with the acronym standing for Virgin MotherShip.

The system launched around 10:45 a.m. and reached a supersonic speed of about 2,300 mph.

About 50 minutes after takeoff, the craft reached about 50,000 feet and SpaceShipTwo was dropped. The engines propelled the craft another 40 miles higher and the crew experienced about four minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth.

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The Unity 22 mission marked the first time a private space company's founder flew into space, beating Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, who also developed Amazon, by nine days.

"It was just magical," Branson said during the live broadcast by his company. "It's 17 years of painstaking work, the occasional horrible down and large ups with it. And today was definitely the biggest up."

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Gen. Jay Raymond, chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force, posted on Twitter: "Congrats to @richardbranson & the entire team @virgingalactic! "Your years of hard work & dedication paid off today with a flawless flight to the edge of Space."

Two pilots and three other Virgin Galactic employees were on the flight. The crew tested out the experience that hundreds of others plan to have soon because the company already has sold tickets for $250,000 per person.

The other three crew members were Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations. The pilots are Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci.

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Virgin Galactic plans to start passenger flights for paying customers in 2022 after more test flights.

The cost is an estimated $250,000 per person with more than 600 people already signed up. Branson also has a contest to win two seats on a flight.

"We're here to make space more accessible to all," Branson said during the news conference. "We want to turn the next generation of dreamers into the astronauts of today and tomorrow. We've all us on this stage have had the most extraordinary experience, and we'd love it if a number of you can have it, too.

"If you ever had a dream, now is the time to make it come true. I'd like to end by saying welcome to the dawn of a new space age."

On Friday, Blue Origin posted on Twitter a comparison of its New Shepard rocket trips to Virgin Galactic's vehicle, calling Branson's ride a "high-altitude airplane."

Blue Origin pointed out that its rocket travels to the Kármán line of 62 miles high, an international standard to define space, while the VSS Unity will only surpass the historic U.S. standard for space, which is 50 miles up.

Branson and many others in the industry have said they don't mind the comparisons or the competition, since many who can afford to may fly on both vehicles.

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Another billionaire, Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX, has already sent astronauts to the International Space Station and is preparing for moon and Mars landings. Like Branson, the company is planning flights for paying customers.

Like Blue Origin, SpaceX launches rockets into space with the capsule separating from boosters.

Blue Origin launches from West Texas with Space X leasing NASA's Cape Canaveral Space Force Station Launch Complex 40. SpaceX also launches satellites from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

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The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches NASA's second crew to the International Space Station at 5:49 a.m. Friday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo

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