Nearly two decades after founding Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson made his first trip to space aboard one of the company's spacecraft and helped bring space tourism closer to reality

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Richard Branson
Credit: Virgin Galactic

Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire business mogul with a flair for adventure, took his most daring trip yet on Sunday morning when he flew to the edge of space aboard a Virgin Galactic ship for the first time.

Branson, along with five other team members, boarded the VSS Unity spacecraft around dawn to embark on the company's first fully crewed flight test, a mission dubbed "Unity 22."

The group took off from the company's spaceport in Sierra County, New Mexico, shortly before 8:00 a.m. local time, to start the approximately 60-minute journey to and from suborbital space. The flight was live-streamed from the company's website and across their various social media channels.

Mothership Aircraft VMS Eve, named after Branson's mother, first carried spacecraft VSS Unity to the appropriate altitude of about 50,000 ft. Unity then detached and fired its engine, eventually bringing the astronauts over 50 miles above the ground, which NASA deems as the edge of space.

While still descending, Branson issued a statement to those following along. "Now I'm looking down at our beautiful spaceport. Congratulations to everybody for creating such a beautiful, beautiful place," he said. "Congratulations to all of our team at Virgin Galactic for 17 years of hard, hard work to get us this far."

Virgin Galactic UNITY22 CREW
Credit: Virgin Galactic UNITY22

As the crew made their way back down to Earth, Grammy-nominated singer Khalid treated the astronauts to his new song "New Normal." He also debuted the song during a live performance from the spaceport, along with his hits "Talk" and "Better."

Along with 70-year-old Branson, the mission's crew includes pilots Dave MacKay and Michael Masucci, as well as Virgin Galactic's chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett, and Sirisha Bandla, the company's vice president for government affairs and research operations.

The launch helps bring Virgin Galactic ever closer to opening their services for paying customers, a vision Branson has had since he founded the company in 2004. They hope to offer trips aboard their spaceplanes as early as 2022, Julia Hunter, Senior Vice President at Virgin Galactic, confirmed to press the day before the flight.

Controversially, Branson — whose net worth hovers around $6 billion as of early July, according to Forbes — announced he would be boarding the flight just a few weeks after fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos confirmed his own flight to space on July 20.

"I've been itching to go, and they said they wanted somebody to properly test the astronaut experience," Branson told the Washington Post, downplaying the competition between him and Bezos. "And I was damned if I was going to let anyone take that seat."

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During Sunday's flight, Branson's objective was to "evaluate the private astronaut experience," to help "enhance the journey for all future astronaut customers," according to Virgin Galactic.

Bezos, who founded Amazon and Virgin Galactic's competitor, Blue Origin, is scheduled to make the trip with his brother, Mark, in nine days.