Sir Richard Branson today became the first billionaire in space, celebrating the ‘experience of a lifetime' with his wife, children and grandchildren who greeted him on the tarmac after his Virgin Galactic spacecraft returned from a flight through the edge of the Earth's atmosphere.
The 70-year-old British entrepreneur pumped his fists in the air as he stepped onto the runway in New Mexico before skipping towards his daughter Holly's twins Etta and Artie and scooping them up in his arms.
Branson, who said he had dreamed about travelling to space since childhood, shared a group hug with the rest of his family including his wife Joan Templeman, his son Sam and grand-daughter Eva-Deia.
He was one of six Virgin Galactic employees aboard VSS Unity for the voyage to 280,000ft.
Speaking to a crowd of spectators afterwards, a jubilant Branson said: ‘Like most kids, I have dreamt of this moment since I was kid. But nothing can prepare you for the view of Earth from space, the whole thing was just magical.'
He added that he was ‘so honoured to test the customer experience.' The brief, up-and-down flight was intended as a confidence-boosting plug for Virgin Galactic, which plans to start taking paying customers on joyrides next year.
Video streamed live online showed the Virgin Galactic in the air at about 3.45pm UK time, and the aircraft had reached 40,000 feet by 4pm. The spacecraft was carried up into the atmosphere by its mothership before being released so it could power up to highs of 250,000 feet.
Sir Richard and his crew reached speeds of Mach 3 on their way to the edge of space. After a short spell during which they experienced weightlessness, the craft then pointed downwards and made its way back to the ground, touching down around 4.40pm.
On the return flight, Sir Richard hailed the ‘experience of a lifetime' and the ‘hard, hard work' that went into the flight.
On the ground, Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said: ‘This is a landmark moment for Virgin Galactic. It's a landmark moment for the new commercial space industry and it certainly is a landmark moment for our founder Richard Branson.'
He said the company's work on Sunday was dedicated to ‘opening up space to all'.