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The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity returns to earth on July 11. Photo: PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Billionaire Richard Branson flew on a suborbital mission to the edge of space with his company, Virgin Galactic, on Sunday, beating fellow space billionaire Jeff Bezos to the punch in the process.

Why it matters: This very public moment of success could help buoy the company as it pushes to begin commercial service next year and attract new customers.

Driving the news: Branson, his three fellow crew members and two pilots, took flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico at about 10:40 a.m. ET.

  • The six-person crew — ensconced within their Unity space plane — were lofted thousands of feet above Earth by their carrier aircraft before the plane was dropped and its rocket engine kicked on.
  • At Unity's highest altitude — over 50 miles above Earth's surface — the crew was able to experience weightlessness and see the planet against the blackness of space before gliding back in for a landing.
  • "Being up there and looking back down has to be one of the most amazing feelings, and we can't wait for more people to experience it," Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, said during the webcast.
Branson reacts on board Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity after reaching the edge of space. Still from a video photo via Reuters

Between the lines: The webcast of the launch itself was pretty unique in the world of space launch livestreams.

  • Instead of mostly focusing on the technical elements of the launch, Virgin Galactic's livestream was co-hosted by Stephen Colbert and came complete with plenty of jokes.
  • The webcast effectively served as an advertisement for anyone who might be interested in flying on the system at some point in the future.

The big picture: Virgin Galactic is in direct competition with Bezos' Blue Origin for a piece of the suborbital space tourism market.

  • Bezos is expected to fly on his company's system for its first human flight on July 20.
  • Elon Musk's SpaceX, on the other hand, isn't interested in suborbital space tourism.
  • Instead, his company has created a more powerful system that sends astronauts to the International Space Station, with plans to launch a fully-civilian crew in September.
A tweet previously embedded here has been deleted or was tweeted from an account that has been suspended or deleted.

The intrigue: The FAA is currently barred from creating regulations governing the safety of those who choose to fly on commercial spaceflight systems like these until at least 2023.

  • That moratorium was put in place in order to allow the industry to quite literally get off the ground before regulators come in.
  • At the moment, these passengers fly under what's known as a regime of "informed consent" where private companies responsible for these systems need to make the risks clear before the flight.

Go deeper

Oct 5, 2021 - Podcasts
How It Happened

The Next Astronauts Part V: The Launch

In part five of How it Happened: The Next Astronauts, Axios space reporter Miriam Kramer follows the Inspiration4 crew to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, to cover their launch and catches up with each of them after their return.

  • Kramer takes listeners to the press center at the Kennedy Space Center and inside of a pre-launch press conference with the four civilian astronauts the day before launch.
  • Kramer reports on the launch from on the ground and analyzes the livestream hosted by SpaceX, including the abrupt termination of real-time access to the crew once they reached orbit.
  • She tracks the crew during their three days in orbit, their high-risk descent back through the Earth's atmosphere, and what the safety and success of the mission means for the entire industry going forward.

Subscribe to How It Happened wherever you listen to podcasts.

  • For more of Miriam Kramer's space reporting, subscribe to Axios Space.

Credits: The Next Astronauts is reported and produced by Miriam Kramer, Amy Pedulla, Naomi Shavin, and Alice Wilder. Dan Bobkoff is Executive Producer. Mixing, sound design, and music supervision by Alex Sugiura. Theme music and original score by Michael Hanf. Fact-checking and research by Jacob Knutson. Alison Snyder is a managing editor at Axios and Sara Kehaulani Goo is executive editor. Special thanks to Axios co-founders Mike Allen, Jim VandeHei and Roy Schwartz.

Sep 14, 2021 - Podcasts
How It Happened

The Next Astronauts Part IV: Risk

In part four of How it Happened: The Next Astronauts, Axios space reporter Miriam Kramer learns how the Inspiration4 crew is grappling with risk, something every company in the space industry and all astronauts must confront.

  • Kramer speaks with the crew, the parent of a crew member, and a former NASA safety expert about how memories of the Challenger explosion have shaped the way the space industry prepares astronauts for risk.

William Shatner, 90, going to space on next Blue Origin flight

William Shatner. Photo: Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images

Actor William Shatner will be launched to space in the upcoming Blue Origin tourist spaceflight, the company announced on Monday.

Why it matters: The 90-year-old actor, best known for playing Captain Kirk in the television series "Star Trek," will become the oldest person to fly to space.