It has been one of the most challenging endeavours in his career but after a 90-minute delay caused by the weather Sir Richard Branson fulfilled his greatest ambition.

The billionaire businessman made history after becoming the first owner-astronaut to travel to the edge of space aboard Virgin Galactic’s first fully crewed flight.

Sir Richard hailed the “experience of a lifetime” and smiled as he headed back to the planet surface after feeling the thrill of weightlessness for several minutes.

HeraldScotland:

(Unity crew at zero gravity)

Video streamed live online showed Unity taking off at about 3.45pm UK time, and it had reached 40,000 feet by 4pm.The launch, from Spaceport America in New Mexico, has been hailed a “landmark moment” for Branson, as well as the whole commercial space industry.

Tourists are expected to pay 250,000 US dollars (£180,000) for a spaceflight on Virgin Galactic, which includes four minutes of zero gravity.

The spacecraft was carried up into the atmosphere by its mothership before being released so it could power up to highs of 250,000 feet.

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Sir Richard and his crew reached speeds of Mach 3 on their way to the edge of space.

After a short spell during which they experienced weightlessness, the craft then pointed downwards and made its way back to the ground, touching down around 4.40pm.

The Sunday Times newspaper reported that Elon Musk - who owns rival exploration company SpaceX - has paid for a seat on a future Virgin voyage.

Mr Musk paid a 10,000-dollar (£7,000) deposit to reserve a seat but no date for his flight has been specified.

Sir Richard’s space mission succeeded ahead of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who plans to reach space in his own rocket through his Blue Origin company.

On the ground, Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said: “This is a landmark moment for Virgin Galactic.

“It’s a landmark moment for the new commercial space industry and it certainly is a landmark moment for our founder Richard Branson.”

He said the company’s work on Sunday was dedicated to “opening up space to all”.

The businessman first announced his intention to make a space plane in 2004 and vowed to have a commercial service available by 2007.

However, the project faced technical difficulties and tragedy after a fatal crash during a development flight in 2014, 

He said: “I’ve wanted to go to space since I was a kid, and I want to enable hopefully hundreds of thousands of other people over the next 100 years to be able to go to space.

“And why shouldn’t they go to space? Space is extraordinary; the Universe is magnificent. I want people to be able to look back at our beautiful Earth and come home and work very hard to try to do magic to it to look after it.”