Richard Branson became the first person to blast off in his own spaceship, beating fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos (whose own self-funded trip to space is slated for July 20) by nine days. He stopped by The Late Show last night to share his experience with Colbert. The nearly 71-year-old Branson along with five crewmates from his Virgin Galactic space tourism company reached an altitude of about 53 miles (88 kilometers) over the New Mexico desert, enough to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth, and then safely glided back home to a runway landing.
Stephen Colbert greeted a shoeless Branson, "Welcome back to the cool green hills of Earth." He later asked, "At any point did you think this was not a good idea...?" as they watched the footage from the flight. Branson admitted that he did have misgivings of whether his body was going to cope, but once he realized that it would, "it was a dream come true." Branson was nervous at first, though ultimately said of his exploration: "It was extraordinary."
Richard Branson had some words of advice for Jeff Bezos, whom he beat by nine days by blasting off on Sunday. "Sit back, relax, look out of the window. Absorb the view outside. Really take it in, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity, enjoy it."
At the top of the flight, while his three companions -- Virgin Galactic employees Beth Moses, Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla -- floated around him Sunday, Branson had a message."To all you kids out there -- I was once a child with a dream, looking up to the stars. Now I'm an adult in a spaceship ... If we can do this, just imagine what you can do."
During his interview with The Today Show, he was still on a high long after the safe landing. The brief, up-and-down flight (the rocket ship's portion took only about 15 minutes, or about as long as Alan Shepard's first U.S. spaceflight in 1961) was intended as a confidence-boosting plug for Virgin Galactic, which plans to start taking paying customers on joyrides next year. Prices are estimated between $200,000 to $250,000 per ticket. This makes Branson the first civilian astronaut. He also became only the second septuagenarian to depart for space. Astronaut John Glenn flew on the shuttle at age 77 in 1998.
The morning was spent with good friend Elon Musk, fellow billionaire and space-tourism rival.
The crowd cheered and yelled as it touched down on the runway. Some spectators jumped into the air. Others embraced and shared hugs. "That was an amazing accomplishment," former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, a one-time commander of the International Space Station, said from the sidelines. "I'm just so delighted at what this open door is going to lead to now. It's a great moment."
"Seventeen years of hard work to get us this far," a jubilant Branson said as he congratulated his team on the trip back aboard the sleek white space plane, named Unity.