Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson blasts to space

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Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic crew blasted to the edge of space from New Mexico on Sunday, fulfilling a 17-year ambition for the British billionaire and opening the latest chapter in commercial space tourism.

The rocket plane called a SpaceShipTwo took off from Spaceport America, about 180 miles south of Albuquerque, with two pilots and four people in the cabin.

A mothership plane took the ship, the “V.S.S. Unity,” to an altitude of 50,000 feet before the rocket plane kicked in and separated at 11:25 a.m. to take passengers 50 miles above the Earth.

They’ll be able to see the big blue planet from a perspective few have enjoyed.

“Unless, of course, you’ve got the middle seat. Then, you’ve got to ask the astronaut sitting next to the window to put it all into perspective for you,” said late-night TV host Stephen Colbert, who served as master of ceremonies for the launch. “Oh, I’m being told there are no middle seats in space. Thank you, science.”

There is debate about whether the ship is actually heading to space — they are not going into orbit — but passengers will feel a period of weightlessness before the plane tips down toward Earth again to glide to a landing.

“Later today, Richard Branson and his crew will return to Earth as astronauts,” Mr. Colbert said.

Mr. Branson, 70, joins Elon Musk, of SpaceX and Tesla fame, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in the billionaires’ race to space.

Their investments ushered in a phase of exploration that banks on private industry and public-private partnerships instead of keeping space travel within the purview of NASA.

SpaceX launched a crewed trip to the International Space Station in 2020 and Mr. Bezos’s Blue Origin will head to space later this month with the former Amazon CEO aboard.

Mr. Musk was on hand in New Mexico to cheer on Mr. Branson, the adventurous leader of Virgin companies known for his white-blonde locks and daredevil promotions.

The trips are wowing modern society while sparking debates about the environmental impact of the endeavors and whether the money is well-spent, given humanity’s problems on the ground.

For now, trips to space are open to an exclusive club of the wealthy.

“I’ve known Richard for years,” Mr. Colbert said in the introduction. “I’ve never been to his private island, but that’s OK.”

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