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Virgin Galactic Completes First Commercial Flight into Space

Virgin Galactic
Unity reached an altitude of about 53 miles. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic completed its first-ever commercial mission on Thursday, sending four passengers to suborbital space and back.

Richard Branson’s rocket plane, Unity, reached an altitude of about 53 miles in a landmark moment for Virgin Galactic, which has big ambitions for space tourism.

The flight lifted off from Spaceport America in New Mexico at 10:30 a.m. ET (1430 GMT) and reached suborbital space some 58 minutes later. After a few minutes floating at an apogee of 52.9 miles (85.1 kilometers), the space plane then returned to Spaceport America and landed at 11:42 a.m. ET (1542 GMT).

Two Italian air force colonels and an aerospace engineer from the National Research Council of Italy joined a Virgin Galactic instructor and the plane’s two pilots on flight, which was streamed around the world.

“What a beautiful landing and a perfect way to complete our first commercial flight and our first dedicated science mission. Congratulations to everyone on board,” Virgin Galactic’s Sirisha Bandla said upon touchdown.

Virgin Galactic joins space tourism race

The flight marks a decisive moment for Virgin Galactic Holding Inc, the space tourism venture founded by Branson in 2004, as it inaugurates commercial service after several years fraught with development setbacks.

It was the company’s sixth piloted sub-orbital space flight but the first to carry paying customers.

Branson’s company has sold about 800 tickets for trips on the aircraft at a cost of up to $450,000 a seat. The company plans to eventually build a large enough fleet to accommodate 400 flights annually.

Virgin is the latest billionaire-founded company to join the space tourism race, along with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The flight comes two years after Branson himself rode along with five other Virgin Galactic personnel for the first fully crewed test spaceflight of Unity in July 2021. At the time, the company was targeting regular commercial service to begin in 2022 after additional test flights.

The mission of the Italian team was billed as scientific as well as touristic. One of the astronauts wore a special suit that measured biometric data and physiological responses.

Another conducted tests using sensors to track heart rate, brain function and other metrics while in microgravity. A third experiment assessed how certain liquids and solids mix in that environment.

“This flight showcases our distinctive spaceflight system, which allows researchers to fly with their experiments, and our capacity to offer regular access to space for the science and technology community,” Bandla said.

In 2014, a pilot was killed when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo craft crashed in the California desert.

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