Billionaire Richard Branson Says Completing Lifelong Goal of Visiting Space Felt Like 'a Dream'
Billionaire and adventurer Sir Richard Branson flew to space aboard one of his own ships on July 11, an achievement that brings space tourism closer to reality
"My kids were saying, 'You can't wait up for him, you could be waiting up all night. You got a big day tomorrow,'" the 70-year-old father of three and founder of Virgin Galactic tells PEOPLE. "So I finally went to bed quite late."
But Branson awoke a short time later, looked at his watch, and rushed out of the bedroom after misreading the time as 2:30 in the morning. His guest had already arrived.
"I took a look at my watch again, and it was 12:30," he recalls. "Anyway, Elon was in the kitchen."
Branson's visitor, Elon Musk, is a fellow billionaire and the founder of space transportation services company SpaceX. The wealthy duo stayed up into the wee hours of the morning as Branson counted down the minutes to his flight. He wouldn't mistake the time on his watch again.
"I was too excited to go back to sleep," the golden-haired Branson says. (A photograph of him and a barefooted Musk from that morning soon made its way to Instagram.)
A short while later, as the blazing sun rose over Virgin Galactic's spaceport in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, Branson and five crew members strapped themselves into the VSS Unity. The rocket-powered spaceplane was attached to the VMS Eve, a dual fuselage carrier aircraft named after Branson's "courageous" mother, who died of COVID-19 in January.
Around 8:30 a.m., Eve began its ascent tens of thousands of feet into the air until Unity freed itself from the mothership and let its powerful rocket fly the crew to an altitude of 53.5 miles above Earth's surface, which is past the 50-mile mark NASA and the U.S. military consider the edge of space.
"I was surprised how relaxed I was, in a really good frame of mind, it was just great," Branson says. "We'd been trained so well, I knew exactly what to expect and when, and I was fierce and healthy."
"I can't remember what it is — a minute and a half, two minutes — that you're being pressed to your seat [after Unity fired its rocket], but it feels like an eternity, which is great," the English entrepreneur continues. "When we reached apogee... [we experienced] the complete silence, the complete opposite of the roar of the rocket as you're roaring up there. And then, the Earth is turning below you."
The mission, which the company named "Unity 22," lasted about an hour in total before the crew touched down in New Mexico's desert.
Grammy-nominated singer Khalid performed a new song live from the spaceport as the crew made their return. Once there, former astronaut Chris Hadfield presented them with Astronaut Wings, a recognition granted by the Federal Aviation Administration to crews that travel 50 miles above Earth and return safely.
Virgin Galactic aims to begin taking private citizens to space in 2022, and Branson hopes his trip inspires young people to learn more about the stars. On Sunday, the company announced a partnership with Omaze to raffle off two seats aboard one of its first commercial flights.
Branson says his love affair with space began while watching astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins fly to the moon in July 1969. A year later, he founded Virgin as a mail-order record retailer.
"The trip to the moon was it for our generation, and these trips are meant to inspire young people and future generations," the avid adventurer, who lists kitesurfing across the English Channel as one of his many feats, explains. "To give young people the realization that they really may be able to go into space."
But Branson isn't alone in his dream of offering out-of-this-world flights to paying customers. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, currently the richest man in the world, is slated to take one of his Blue Origin rockets to space on July 20 with his brother, Mark.
Notably, Branson beat Bezos to space by just nine days, allowing him to become the first billionaire in history to ride one of his own ships outside of Earth. Some have speculated whether Branson took pleasure in besting his rival, but he's since downplayed the competition between them.
Officially, Branson's mission during Unity 22 was to "evaluate the private astronaut experience," essentially meaning it was time for the boss to review the product. Ever the businessman, Branson says he may have a few ideas to make the trip even better for future astronauts.
"In order to make something absolutely perfect, I really do love to experience it myself. And then, make long lists of little things that can make for an even better customer experience, in the future," he explains. "They really are little things. I will have fulfilled my role as the first customer experience passenger, or staff member, to hand in that list to make sure that all those little things, boxes are ticked for the future."
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Moving forward, Branson says he has many other things he'd like to accomplish, such as seeing off the first Virgin Galactic customers and using technology to take on planet-wide problems, such as monitoring climate change, deforestation, and illegal fishing.
But first, he'll take some time to appreciate what has been the sweetest experience of his life thus far.
"This morning when I got back up, I said to the kids just as we're coming back, 'I still think I might wake up tomorrow morning, and find it actually hasn't happened,'" Branson says before pausing to soak in the moment. "The first thing I sent my son was a note this morning, it said, 'It wasn't a dream.'"
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