Sir Richard Branson has realised a childhood dream by flying to the edge of space – with Highland astronaut David Mackay at the helm.
The billionaire businessman hailed the “experience of a lifetime” after the trip onboard Virgin Galactic’s first fully crewed flight.
He was beaming as he headed back to the earth’s surface after feeling the thrill of weightlessness for several minutes on Sunday afternoon.
The launch was hailed a “landmark moment” for him – winning the with rival entrepreneurs Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk to make it in his own craft – as well as the whole commercial space industry.
Take-off was delayed by about 90 minutes on Sunday due to the weather overnight at Spaceport America in New Mexico, in the US.
But 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.
Having evaluated the experience for himself, Mr Branson hopes to invite paying customers on board next year.
On the return flight, Sir Richard hailed the “experience of a lifetime” and the “hard, hard work” that went into the flight.
Out on the runway, he was greeted with cheers and hugs as he walked back to the spaceport.
Later, he told a press conference: “Like most kids I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid but honestly nothing could prepare you for the view of Earth from space.
“The whole thing was just magical.”
He also paid tribute to scientist Stephen Hawking, who he said it was an “honour” to know.
Join us July 11th for our first fully crewed rocket powered test flight, and the beginning of a new space age.
The countdown begins. #Unity22
https://t.co/5UalYT7Hjb. @RichardBranson pic.twitter.com/ZL9xbCeWQX
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) July 1, 2021
The great space race take two
Sir Richard is the first owner-astronaut to take part in a mission, beating Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who plans to reach space in his own rocket through his Blue Origin company.
Mr Mackay – who grew up in Helmsdale, Sutherland and in 2019 became the first Scot to fly into space – was chief pilot for the Unity test mission.
When he first broke the 50-mile barrier above the Earth, he said, “Welcome to space, Scotland” as a tribute to his home country.
“The big deal, as you look out the window, is the contrast between this densely black sky, which is a bit strange, because you’re outside the atmosphere and the sun is incredibly bright,” he said.
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) July 11, 2021
Mr Mackay added: “You’re looking at that dense black sky and there’s this beautiful colour of atmosphere, an extremely thin band of beautiful, beautiful blue.
“And that was contrasted with these incredible oranges. You know, those beautiful, rust-type colours on the ground with dotted white clouds above.
“It’s just an incredible scene. It is a remarkable thing to see.”
Mr Mackay remains the only person born in Scotland to have had the privilege of that view – the only saltire on the Wikipedia list of the more than 600 people who can call themselves astronauts 0 but he believes commercial space tourism is not far away now.
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”.
Tourists are expected to pay 250,000 US dollars (£180,000) for a spaceflight on Virgin Galactic, which includes four minutes of zero gravity.