Richard Branson was hungover on the day the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon in 1969. He had turned 19 two days earlier and had celebrated accordingly. But he was “gripped” as he watched Neil Armstrong on his family’s little black-and-white television, he later wrote in a memoir. He knew then—he was “instantly convinced”—that someday he would go to space himself.
The adventurous British billionaire did it today, at the age of 70, with his own space company, Virgin Galactic, from his own spaceport in New Mexico. He didn’t go as far as the moon, nor did he orbit Earth, but for a few minutes, Branson hovered over an invisible boundary between the planet’s atmosphere and outer space, basking in the sensation of weightlessness.
And as he touched down, Branson became the first person in history to have successfully tested out his own spacecraft.
Branson, along with two pilots and three Virgin Galactic employees, flew on the company’s rocket-powered spaceplane. The design is quite different from the traditional picture of space travel. The trip didn’t involve a rocket lifting up from a launchpad. Instead, a giant airplane carried the winged passenger spaceship high into the sky, to an altitude of about 50,000 feet, and dropped it. The spaceplane then ignited its own engines and hurtled itself higher, just beyond the edge of space. Eventually, the spaceplane glided back down and landed on a runway.
Branson’s flight counts as a victory in the private spaceflight industry, particularly among the world’s small class of space billionaires. Branson beat out Jeff Bezos, who is scheduled to fly to space on his own rocket just nine days from now. Elon Musk, who was in New Mexico for Branson’s flight, doesn’t seem keen on flying anytime soon, though he could hop on a SpaceX rocket, which has carried astronauts to space already.
The men each have their own visions for humankind’s future in the cosmos, but all three are in the business of space tourism, charging customers hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars for rides. Rich people have traveled to space before, but participants flew alongside professional astronauts, inside capsules operated by government agencies. Now, customers with deep-enough pockets can make the journey with relative ease, unencumbered by the baggage of professional spacefarers, like flight experience and science backgrounds. Branson’s flight did carry a scientific experiment, which one of the passengers handled, but Branson’s official role in the flight, according to Virgin, was to “evaluate the private astronaut experience,” which is essentially a fancy way to say “joyride.” His flight brings us closer to an era in which rich thrill seekers with bucket lists, not government-backed astronauts, make up the largest group of people who’ve been to space.
In his seven decades, Branson has checked off a number of risky adventures, surviving a ship sinking and several hot-air balloon crashes. He made his fortune through an assortment of Virgin-branded businesses, including a record label and a phone company, and began Virgin Galactic operations in 2004. Branson wanted to create the first “commercial spaceline” that would take thousands of people on suborbital flights every year. In 2007, three contractors working on Virgin’s spaceplane were killed in an explosion during testing, and in 2014, a pilot died when the spaceplane broke apart in midair while traveling at supersonic speeds.
Virgin Galactic has had moments of triumph too; the company’s spaceplane reached space for the first time in 2018. A 2019 flight produced a memorable photo of Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, staring out the window of the spaceplane, her mouth agape, as she took in the curvature of Earth against the darkness of space. After that, there was talk at the company that Branson could fly next, but the idea quickly dissolved, writes the journalist Nicholas Schmidle in Test Gods, a new book about the making of Virgin Galactic. When engineers inspected the spaceplane Moses flew on, they found the craft had been significantly compromised during flight. “I don’t know how we didn’t lose the vehicle and kill three people,” the company’s then-safety director said, according to Schmidle.
Branson wasn’t supposed to fly so soon this time around. After a successful test flight in May, Virgin Galactic had planned to do one more before bringing Branson on board. The company jumped ahead after Bezos announced that he would be on Blue Origin’s first-ever flight with passengers. Branson has denied that he changed his own plans specifically to beat Bezos, but no one believes him, of course, especially because firsts matter to him; Branson had previously said that he wanted to beat both Blue Origin and SpaceX in delivering people to space.
Whether Branson has succeeded depends on who you ask. NASA and other U.S. agencies put the boundary between our atmosphere and space about 50 miles above Earth’s surface; the International Astronautical Federation says the line is 62 miles up. In the days before Branson’s flight, Blue Origin implied that Virgin Galactic passengers don’t actually reach space, drawing a snarky contrast between Branson, who surpassed the 50-mile mark today, and Bezos, who will aim higher.
Wherever the line, Branson has broken some kind of barrier. Spaceflight was always an adrenaline rush, even for the Apollo astronauts, but that was a feature, not the sole purpose. And Branson’s ride was quite the gamble: The journey was considered a test flight, and Virgin Galactic plans to do at least two more before it puts paying customers on board next year. Branson has said that he wants many private citizens to fly to space, which “belongs to all of us.” Maybe, but only a certain kind of private citizen can get there, at least in the near future. A ticket with Virgin Galactic costs $250,000, and a seat on Blue Origin is rumored to cost even more. For now, these suborbital missions are joyrides for the rich, including the people who brought them into existence. Your turn, Bezos.