SPACEPORT AMERICA, N.M. — Soaring more than 50 miles into the hot, glaringly bright skies above New Mexico, Richard Branson at last fulfilled a dream that took decades to realize: He can now call himself an astronaut.
On Sunday morning, a small rocket plane operated by Virgin Galactic, which Mr. Branson founded in 2004, carried him and five other people to the edge of space and back.
More than an hour later, Mr. Branson took the stage to celebrate. “The whole thing was magical,” he said.
Mr. Branson’s flight reinforces the hopes of space enthusiasts that routine travel to the final frontier may soon be available to private citizens, not just the professional astronauts of NASA and other space agencies. Another billionaire with his own rocket company — Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon — has plans to make a similar jaunt to the edge of space in nine days.
In each case, billionaire entrepreneurs are risking injury or death to fulfill their childhood aspirations — and advance the goal of making human spaceflight unexceptional.
“They’re putting their money where their mouth is, and they’re putting their body where their money is,” said Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures Limited, a company that charters launches to orbit. “That’s impressive, frankly.”
At 8:40 a.m. Mountain time, a carrier aircraft, with the rocket plane, named V.S.S. Unity, tucked underneath, rose off the runway and headed to an altitude of about 45,000 feet. There, Unity was released, and a few moments later, its rocket motor ignited, accelerating the space plane on an upward arc.
Although Unity had made three previous trips to space, this was its first launch that resembled a full commercial flight of the sort that Virgin Galactic has promised to offer the general public, with two pilots — David Mackay and Michael Masucci — and four more crew members including Mr. Branson.
This flight resembled a party for Virgin Galactic and the nascent space tourism business. Guests included Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX; Michelle Lujan Grisham, the governor of New Mexico; and about 60 customers who have paid for future Virgin Galactic flights.
Stephen Colbert of the CBS program “The Late Show” introduced segments of the webcast that included some live video from inside the spaceship. After the landing, Khalid performed a new song.
When the fuel was spent, Unity continued to coast upward to an altitude of 53.5 miles. The four people in back unbuckled and experienced about four minutes of floating before returning to their seats.
Mr. Branson was accompanied in the cabin by Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations.
As the space plane re-entered the atmosphere, the downward pull of gravity resumed. Unity glided to a landing back at the spaceport.
For well over a decade, Mr. Branson, the irreverent 70-year-old British billionaire who runs a galaxy of Virgin companies, has said he believes that commercial flights will soon begin. So did the 600 or so customers of Virgin Galactic who have paid $200,000 or more for their tickets to space and are still waiting. So did the taxpayers of New Mexico who paid $220 million to build Spaceport America, a futuristic vision in the middle of the desert, in order to attract Mr. Branson’s company.
After years and years of unmet promises, Virgin Galactic may begin flying the first paying passengers next year after two more test flights. But with tickets costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, this experience will, for now, remain out of financial reach for most people.
Founding a space exploration company was perhaps an unsurprising step for Mr. Branson, who has made a career — and a fortune estimated at $6 billion — building flashy upstart businesses that he promotes with a showman’s flair.
What became his Virgin business empire began with a small record shop in central London in the 1970s before Mr. Branson parlayed it into Virgin Records, the home of acts like the Sex Pistols, Peter Gabriel and more. In 1984, he was a co-founder of what became Virgin Atlantic, to challenge British Airways.
The Virgin Group branched out into a mobile-phone service, a passenger railway and a line of hotels. Not all have performed flawlessly. Two of his airlines filed for insolvency during the pandemic last year, while few today remember his ventures into soft drinks, cosmetics or lingerie.
The spaceflight company was of a piece with Mr. Branson’s penchant for highflying pursuits like skydiving and hot-air ballooning. And unlike many of the Virgin Group’s businesses, Virgin Galactic has been a major focus of Mr. Branson’s.
Virgin Galactic joined the New York Stock Exchange in 2019 after merging with a publicly traded investment fund, giving it a potent source of new funds to compete with deep-pocket competitors — and publicity, with Mr. Branson marking its…