Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson Flying Own Rocket to Space

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. (AP) -- After a lifetime of yearning to fly in space, Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson was poised to blast off aboard his own winged rocket ship Sunday in his boldest adventure yet.

The thrill-seeking billionaire joined five company employees also assigned to the bid to reach the edge of space high above the New Mexico desert.

"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.

Ever the showman, Branson counted down the days to liftoff via Twitter. He viewed the brief up-and-down trip as a confidence builder in his space-tourism company -- not only for the 600-plus people already holding reservations for a joyride but for others thinking of plunking down a few hundred thousand dollars for a chance to leave Earth's atmosphere.

The London-born founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, who turns 71 in a week, wasn't supposed to fly until later this summer. But he assigned himself to an earlier flight after fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos announced plans to ride his own rocket ship into space from Texas on July 20.

Virgin Galactic doesn't expect to start flying customers before next year. 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.

Unlike Blue Origin and Musk's SpaceX, which launch capsules atop rockets, Virgin Galactic uses a twin-fuselage aircraft to get its rocket ship aloft. The space plane is then released from the mother ship at about 8 miles (13 kilometers) up, and fires its engine to streak straight to space. Maximum altitude is roughly 55 miles (70 kilometers), with three to four minutes of weightlessness provided.

The rocket plane then glides to a runway landing at Virgin's Spaceport America base.

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