The nearly 71-year-old Branson and five crewmates from his Virgin Galactic space tourism company reached an altitude of about 53 miles (88 kilometers) over the New Mexico desert — enough to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth — and then safely glided home to a runway landing.
“Seventeen years of hard work to get us this far,” a jubilant Branson said as he congratulated his team on the trip back aboard the sleek white space plane, named Unity.
The brief, up-and-down flight was intended as a confidence-boosting plug for Virgin Galactic, which plans to start taking paying customers on joyrides next year.
Branson became the first person to blast off in his own spaceship, beating Bezos by nine days. He also became only the second septuagenarian to depart for space. John Glenn flew on the shuttle at age 77 in 1998.
With about 500 people watching, including Branson’s wife, children and grandchildren, a twin-fuselage aircraft with his space plane attached underneath took off in the first stage of the flight.
The space plane then detached from the mother ship at an altitude of about 8 1/2 miles (13 kilometers) and fired its engine, reaching more than Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, as it pierced the edge of space.
The rocket plane’s portion of the flight took just 15 minutes.
The crowd cheered and yelled as it touched down on the runway. Some spectators jumped into the air. Others embraced and shared hugs.
Virgin Galactic conducted three previous test flights into space with crews of just two or three.