An emotional Richard Branson has shed tears of relief and joy after Virgin Galactic successfully launched a tourism rocket plane into space for the first time.
The 68-year-old billionaire British businessman watched with his son Sam as SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, took off in the early morning sunshine at the Mojave test centre in California on Friday (Thursday local time) in front of hundreds of employees and their families.
Speaking to the crowd after the successful launch, Sir Richard said: “Who shed a tear here? I was shedding lots”.
“Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space.
“Today we completed our first revenue-generating flight and created two new astronauts – well, one of them was already an astronaut but you know what I mean.
“Today we have shown that Virgin Galactic really can open space to change the world for good.”
Reaching a top speed of 2.9 times the speed of sound, the aircraft reached a staggering altitude of 82,682 metres after being released by its carrier plane at 13,106 metres.
It had reached space altitudes around 50 minutes after take-off, which the company’s Twitter account announced: “SpaceShipTwo, welcome to space.”
SpaceShipTwo, welcome to space. 🚀🌎 pic.twitter.com/tHHNSlkrd0
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) December 13, 2018
Flown by two pilots, former NASA test pilot Mark Stucky and Nasa astronaut Frederick Sturckow, the aircraft made its rapid ascent as the rocket motor burned for 60 seconds.
After arriving back at the test centre, co-pilot Stucky, said: “It was a great flight. We would have been happy with a third of that.
“There are a lot of firsts here today but there are also some seconds. There have been two people before that have flown winged spacecraft to space and back.”
Described back in August by The New Yorker as an “ace pilot risking his life to fulfil Sir Richard’s dream of making commercial space flight a reality”, Mr Stucky had already completed 24 test flights, including three of the four times it had fired its rocket booster, before Thursday.
He told The New Yorker: “As a Marine Corps colonel once told me … ‘if you want to be safe, go be a shoe salesman at Sears'”.
Sir Richard made reference to those who had sacrificed their lives for the Virgin Galactic cause, including the co-pilot and Mr Stucky’s best friend, who died after the fourth flight from mission control in October 2014.
“People have literally put their lives on the line to get us here. This day is as much for them as it is for all of us.”
“We will now push on with the remaining portion of our flight test programme which will see the rocket motor burn for longer, and VSS Unity fly still faster and higher towards giving thousands of private astronauts an experience which provides a new planetary perspective to our relationship with the Earth and with the comsos.
“But let’s not forget that space is also hard and we daily recognise the commitment and sacrifice that has been so consistently shown by our amazing Mojave family.