British billionaire Richard Branson completed his latest, and arguably greatest, adventure Sunday with a brief flight to the edge of space aboard his Virgin Galactic spaceplane. The flight marks not only Branson’s first trip to space but the first time Virgin has flown a full crew cabin as well. Hundreds of invited guests and members of the media watched from the desert floor below at New Mexico’s Spaceport America as the double contrail drawn across the sky by carrier aircraft VMS Eve was suddenly overshadowed by a third white plume emanating from SpaceShipTwo Unity’s rocket engine. The pair lifted off together around 8:40 a.m. MT (7:40 a.m. PT) and 45 minutes later Unity detached from Eve and fired its motor for just under a minute to reach speeds in excess of Mach 3.
Viewed from the surface, a diffuse but distinct white line could be seen rapidly painting almost perfectly vertically, pointing quite literally to the heavens. Branson called it the “experience of a lifetime” in a staticky radio transmission from Unity as it began to glide back to Earth. The craft then returned for a picture-perfect landing near the same spot VMS Eve launched from almost exactly an hour earlier. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age,” the 70-year-old Branson said later from the tarmac of Spaceport America. VMS Eve is named for Branson’s mother, Eve, who died due to COVID-19 complications in January. “She held on for one last victory, managing to fight off the virus, but had expended all of her energy in the process,” Branson wrote in a blog post citing her as a major inspiration and force behind his career. “She took glider lessons disguised as a boy, enlisted in the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) during World War II … she was inventive, fearless, relentless — an entrepreneur before the word existed.”