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Billionaire Richard Branson reaches space in his own ship

SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN and MARCIA DUNN
The Associated Press
This May 29, 2018 photo made available by Virgin Galactic shows the company's VSS Unity on its second supersonic flight. After reaching nearly 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), Unity will be released from the specially designed aircraft Mothership Eve, and drop for a moment or two before its rocket motor ignites to send the craft on a steep climb toward space. (Virgin Galactic via AP)

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. — Thrill-seeking billionaire Richard Branson has reached space aboard his own winged rocket ship in his boldest adventure yet.

The feat vaults the nearly 71-year-old Branson past fellow billionaire and rival Jeff Bezos, who is planning to fly to space in a craft of his own nine days from now.

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. Aboard were Branson and five crewmates from his Virgin Galactic space-tourism company.

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 at about 53 miles (88 kilometers) up. After a few minutes of weightlessness for the crew, the space plane is supposed to glide to a runway landing.

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.

"It's a beautiful day to go to space," Branson tweeted in the morning, posting a photo of himself with fellow billionaire and space-tourism rival Elon Musk.

Before climbing aboard, the flamboyant, London-born Branson signed the astronaut log book and wisecracked: "The name's Branson. Sir Richard Branson. Astronaut Double-oh one. License to thrill."

Branson 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 ship into space from Texas on July 20.

More than 600 people have already made reservations for a ride into space with Virgin Galactic, founded in 2004. 

Bezos' Blue Origin has yet to open ticket sales or even announce prices, but late last week boasted via Twitter that it would take clients higher and offer bigger windows.

Blue Origin and Musk's SpaceX both launch capsules atop rockets, instead of using an air-launched, reusable space plane.

Virgin Galactic made three previous test flights into space with a crew.