TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. Swashbuckling entrepreneur Richard Branson hurtled into space aboard his own winged rocket ship Sunday in his boldest adventure yet, beating out fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos.
The nearly 71-year-old Branson and five crewmates from his Virgin Galactic space tourism company reached an altitude of about 53 miles (88 kilometers) over the New Mexico desert -- enough to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth -- and then safely glided back home to a runway landing.
"Seventeen years of hard work to get us this far," a jubilant Branson said as he congratulated his team on the trip back.
Branson became the first person to blast off in his own spaceship, beating Bezos by nine days. He also became only the second septuagenarian to depart for space. (John Glenn flew on the shuttle at age 77 in 1998.)
With about 500 people watching, including 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.
The space plane then detached from the mother ship at an altitude of about 8 1/2 miles (13 kilometers) and fired its engine, reaching the edge of space. The entire flight up and back aboard the sleek white ship, named Unity, took just under 15 minutes.
Virgin Galactic conducted three previous test flights into space with crews of just two or three.
The flamboyant, London-born founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways wasn't supposed to fly until later this summer. But he assigned himself to an earlier flight after Bezos announced plans to ride his own rocket into space from Texas on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.