Billionaire Sir Richard Branson and five other passengers successfully launched to the lower edge of space — about 50 miles above Earth — and back to planet Earth on Sunday in the first fully crewed flight from his private space tourism firm Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic’s reusable SpaceShipTwo returned to Spaceport America, about 170 miles south of Albuquerque, N.M., in the desert after taking off 1/2 hours earlier from the same runway attached beneath to a twin-fuselage jet. Unity was launched from the Eve mothership at an altitude of 50,000 feet and live stream video showed it shooting into space. Within 30 seconds the spacecraft reached Mach 2 speed and a few seconds later hit Mach 3 at an altitude of weightlessness. Branson, 70, served as a mission specialist on the flight. Onboard video showed Branson and the three other astronauts unbuckling their seatbelts to float around the cabin and take in view of the curvature of Earth. At around 11:40 a.m. ET the spacecraft touched back down on Earth, making a smooth landing back in New Mexico.

Branson said at a news conference following the historic flight: “I think like most kids I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid and honestly nothing can prepare you for the view of Earth from space.” He said he was honored to “test the customer experience” and declared, “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age. It’s just magical. I’m just taking it all in. It’s just unreal.”

Editorial credit: PhotoStockImage / Shutterstock.com

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