Thrill-seeking billionaire Richard Branson has reached space aboard his own winged rocket ship and returned to earth safely in his boldest adventure yet.
With about 500 people watching, including Mr 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.
Aboard were Mr Branson and five crew mates from his Virgin Galactic space-tourism company.
The space plane then detached from the mother ship at an altitude of about 13km and fired its engine, reaching the edge of space about 88km up.
After a few minutes of weightlessness for the crew, the space plane is began its decent, set to end with a glide to a runway landing.
The weather at Spaceport America delayed the historic flight by 90 minutes but TV host Stephen Colbert kicked off the livestream shortly after 12.30am (AEST).
“Greetings, planet Earth,” he said, in a joke-filled opening monologue.
Soon after, it was revealed the VMS Unity had already taken off with the “mothership” VMS Eve, from where it blasted into space.
Then, about 1.30am, Mr Branson and his crew reached the peak of their flight, almost 90km above the earth.
Roughly 10 minutes later, the Unity glided to a safe touchdown back on Earth.
Ever the showman, Mr Branson dramatically counted down the days to lift-off via Twitter.
“It’s a beautiful day to go to space,” he tweeted hours before the flight, posting a photo of himself with fellow billionaire and space-tourism rival Elon Musk.
Mr Branson views the brief up-and-down trip as a confidence builder — not only for the 600-plus people already holding reservations and waiting in the wings, but potential space tourists willing to plunk down a few hundred-thousand dollars for a shot at space.
The London-born founder of the Virgin Group, who turns 71 in a week, wasn’t supposed to fly until later this summer.
Virgin Galactic doesn’t expect to start flying customers before next year.
Blue Origin has yet to open ticket sales or even announce prices but late last week boasted via Twitter that it would take clients higher and offer bigger windows.
Unlike Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which launch capsules atop reusable booster rockets, Virgin Galactic uses a twin-fuselage aircraft to get its rocket ship aloft.
The space plane is released from the mothership about 13.4km up, then fires its rocket motor to streak straight to space. Maximum altitude is roughly 70km, with three to four minutes of weightlessness provided.
The rocket plane — which requires two pilots — glides to a runway landing at its Spaceport America base.
Virgin Galactic reached space for the first time in 2018, repeating the feat in 2019 and again this past May, each time with a minimal crew.
It received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration last month to start launching customers.