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Space tourism begins: Branson blasts off 9 days ahead of rival Jeff Bezos

Marking a fierce but interesting competition among the billionaires, adventure specialist Richard Branson launched commercial space travel from his 'Spaceport America' on Sunday, pipping the world's richest man, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, to the post, becoming the early bird to fly to the edge of space as the first private space tourist nine days earlier than his rival. Although he did not cross the Karman line.

LAS CRUCES (SPACEPORT AMERICA, New Mexico), July 12: Making private space travel a reality, British Virgin Atlantic's Richard Branson, 71, on Sunday blasted off to sub-orbit in his Virgin Galactic space tourism company's space plane, VSS Unity, and glided down smoothly on to the same runway in New Mexico, realising his childhood dream, as he claimed.

When his space plane, which was propelled by rocket Eve (named after his mother), carrying him and five others returned from the edge of space at the outer boundary of Earth's atmosphere, at an altitude of 88 km, after 90 minutes of blast-off, a tumultuous welcome by his jubilant grandchildren awaited him on the ground.

According to an excited Branson, his major achievements were two: 1) Experiencing a few minutes of weightlessness at the outer boundary of Earth's surface; and, 2) having a bird's-eye view of the curvature of Earth. There are 17 windows in the spaceship, one each for every seat.

In his own words, the trip was "an experience of a lifetime." Branson's Virgin Galactic, founded in 2004, will begin commercial operations by launching customers into space next year.

Coming next, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, however, will cross over the Karman line that marks the frontier of space in his Blue Origin's spacecraft, New Shepard, from West Texas on July 20.

Intensifying the competition in space tourism, the third to follow is yet another billionaire and founder of electric carmaker Tesla Inc., Elon Musk of SpaceX, which had collaboration with NASA in sending cargo and astronauts to the space station earlier. In coming September he will send civilians to space in his SpaceX.

There are over 600 bookings with these "travel agents" as of now from the public for space travel, a ticket costing $ 250,000.

Those who accompanied Branson in the flight were three mission specialists - Sirisha Bandla (of Indian origin: born in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, and brought up in Houston, Texas), Beth Moses and Colin Bennett, and two pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci.

Aside, how did he feel those tense moments before shooting into space: "Every bit about it is a pinch-me moment," he said in an interview.

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