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Billionaire space race: Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson reaches the stars

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Richard Branson has become the first rocket company boss to be launched off the planet, after Virgin Galactic’s space plane hurtled to the edge of space and back with the self-described “tie-loathing adventurer” and billionaire on board.

The London-born founder of the Virgin Group joined five company employees for the test flight Sunday morning, which took off from New Mexico’s southern desert at 10:30 a.m. ET.

Read more: What you need to know about Virgin Galactic boss Richard Branson’s trip to space

It’s the company’s fourth trip to the edge of space. The first successful launch took place in 2018, following two disastrous failures that had taken place since Virgin Galactic’s founding in 2004.

A 2007 rocket motor test in California’s Mojave Desert left three workers dead and three more injured. Then in 2014, the rocket plane Enterprise — named after the “Star Trek” ship — broke apart during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other.

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But after making it off the planet once, the successful ship — named Unity by the late physicist Stephen Hawking — has since made it to space two more times.

After Sunday’s launch went off without a hitch, the 70-year-old Branson joined a group of just shy of 600 people who have ever had the chance to leave planet Earth.

“I’m in my 70s now, so you either let yourself go, or you get fit and enjoy life,” Branson said ahead of the trip.

When he makes it to space, he said, “I’ll be looking back at our beautiful Earth and taking it all in.”

Now he’s had the chance to do just that, with his wife, children and grandchildren watching from the ground.

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Unity was attached to a specially designed double aircraft — nicknamed Eve, after Branson’s late mother — and soared upwards. After the plane reached 50,000 feet, it was released.

In that moment, Unity briefly dropped. Its rocket motor then ignited, firing the billionaire and his fellow passengers towards the stars.

Read more: Race to the stars: Richard Branson to go to space 9 days before Jeff Bezos

When the craft reached the edge of space, its motor cut out. That’s the point when the passengers were set to be offered a few minutes of weightlessness, unbuckling to gaze at both the stars and the planet where their family and friends remain. Then they’d have been strapped back in, and came gliding back to Earth.

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Branson was originally slated to head to space later this summer. But when he heard Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos has his own rocket launch scheduled for July 20, the billionaire space race kicked into high gear, with Branson moving up his flight to Sunday.

Virgin Galactic isn’t slated to open its operations to ticket-paying customers until at least next year — but for those wishing to experience space for themselves, it comes with a steep price. Initial tickets for the eventual space flights went for $250,000; and there’s no word on whether that will change.

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— With files from The Associated Press, Reuters

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