Billionaire Richard Branson and a five-person flight crew Sunday completed a Virgin Galactic (SPCE) - Get Free Report test flight on its VSS Unity space plane with plans to launch space tourism trips next year.
Branson and his crew departed from Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America launch site outside of Truth or Consequences, N.M., at 8:40 a.m. local time and returned at 9:38 a.m. after a mission to test the private astronaut experience and evaluate the commercial customer cabin environment and conditions.
The space plane reached an altitude of about 282,000 feet and Mach 3 or about 2,300 mph, three times the speed of sound.
“I don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth, because I feel like I’m still in space,” Branson said at a press conference following the flight.
He added that "99.99% was beyond my wildest dreams.”
The space plane returned safely with no mechanical problems at first inspection, according to Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic president of space missions and safety.
Branson’s Virgin Galactic flight beat rival billionaire and Amazon (AMZN) - Get Free Report founder Jeff Bezos into space by nine days. Bezos’ aerospace company Blue Origin plans to launch its private space capsule into space with a crew that will include Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, aviator and former U.S. army flight instructor Mary Wallace Funk and a winner of a $28 million auction for a seat on the flight.
Branson’s crew included pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci; chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses; lead operations engineer Colin Bennett; and Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs and research operations Sirisha Bandla. The ship carrying the space plane was piloted by C.J. Sturckow and Kelly Latimer.
Virgin Galactic’s shares were up about 0.2% at $49.29 Friday in after hours trading. The company's stock had soared 82% over the past six months amid enthusiasm for Virgin's performance.