Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic Complete Successful Space Flight

Richard Branson won the billionaire space race. On Sunday, the 71-year-old beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos in the race to space with the launch of Virgin Galactic's first full crewed flight, marking a new era of space tourism and cementing Branson's place in history as the first person to ride into space aboard a rocket he helped fund.

After years of planning, Branson boarded the VSS Unity, Virgin's twin-fuselage carrier jet, Virgin's twin-fuselage carrier jet alongside his five other crewmates – Virgin astronaut trainer Beth Moses, flight engineer Colin Bennett, the company's vice president of government relations, Sirisha Bandla, and pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci. With some 500 people watching the history-making flight, the spaceship launched Branson and the others into history at 8:40 a.m. local time, according to CBS News. As the ship climbed to an altitude of about 45,000 feet, Unity was released above the New Mexico desert, the spacecraft accelerating to about three times the speed of sound before shutting down. Unity eventually lifted the crew to an altitude of 53.5 miles, or three-and-a-half miles above what NASA and the FAA consider the "boundary" of space, giving those aboard the craft a view of Earth as they experienced weightlessness.

"To all you kids down there, I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I'm an adult, in a spaceship with lots of other wonderful adults, looking down to our beautiful, beautiful Earth," Branson said. "To the next generation of dreamers: If we can do this, just imagine what you can do!"

After several minutes, Unity began its descent back to Earth. When Unity finally touched down on Spaceport America's 12,000-foot-long runway, the flight had lasted approximately 59 minutes. In remarks following the landing, Branson said, "I think like most kids I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid, but honestly nothing could prepare you for the view of Earth from space. I mean, the whole thing, it was just magical, and suddenly you're looking down and you're seeing three people looking up at you. I'm just taking it all in. It's just unreal."

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Branson's trip to space came just nine days before Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' planned flight into orbit. On July 20, Bezos, his brother Mark, and several others are set to board the New Shepard, a suborbital rocket system developed by his aerospace company Blue Origin. The flight will launch from western Texas and take passengers on an 11-minute flight above the Kármán Line, "the internationally recognized boundary of space."