Virgin Galactic just launched its first commercial space tourism flight

Sir Richard Branson's space tourism enterprise is carrying a commercial crew of three to the edge of space for the very first time.
Chris Young
A screenshot of VSS Unity climbing to the edge of space.
A screenshot of VSS Unity climbing to the edge of space.

Virgin Galactic / YouTube 

Virgin Galactic just performed its sixth spaceflight and first-ever commercial space tourism expedition.

The company's VSS Unity spaceplane took off attached to its carrier aircraft VMS Eve, from Spaceport America, New Mexico at 11:00 ET (0900 GMT) today, June 29.

VSS Unity detached from VMS Eve shortly after takeoff and it carried a four-man crew — including three paying customers — to suborbital space, reaching a maximum altitude of roughly 87 kilometers (54 miles).

It's a massive step for Sir Richard Branson's space tourism venture — not to be confused with satellite launch firm Virgin Orbit, which recently ceased operations and sold off its assets.

Starting in August, Virgin Galactic means to continue operating its commercial spaceflights on a monthly basis.

Virgin Galactic's commercial expedition takes to the skies

Once VSS Eve reached an altitude of roughly 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), the carrier aircraft dropped VSS Unity, which then fired up its rocket engine to fly its passengers to suborbital space.

The commercial crew for Virgin Galactic's first commercial flight, called 'Galactic 01', was made up of two Italian air force colonels and an aerospace engineer from the National Research Council of Italy. They spent a roughly 10-minute period in microgravity taking in expansive views of Earth before Unity started gliding back down to Earth.

Virgin Galactic lead astronaut instructor, Colin Bennett, also joined aboard VSS Unity as a non-paying passenger alongside Unity's two pilots, Michael Masucci and Nicola Pecile.

For Italian Air Force Colonel Walter Villadei, designated commander for Galactic 01, the space tourism flight also served as astronaut training, as he is due to fly to the International Space Station. He was joined by Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Landolfi and Pantaleone Carlucci, who acted as flight engineer and payload specialist for Galactic 01.

A trip aboard VSS Unity doesn't come cheap. According to a report by The Guardian, Virgin Galactic has a backlog of bookings for upcoming spaceflight and it has charged between $250,000 and $450,000 per seat.

'Galactic 01': Space tourism flight doubles up as research mission

Virgin Galactic's first commercial flight comes shortly after the disaster of OceanGate's Titan submarine, which has drawn global attention and criticism for a company that charged a similar amount of money to take tourists to a similarly harsh environment.

However, Virgin Galactic's first commercial flight was, in fact, a research mission chartered by the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council of Italy. While OceanGate decided to forego certification, Virgin Galactic also has full approval from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to carry out its spaceflights.

According to a press statement about the Galactic 01 mission, VSS Unity was essentially "transformed into a suborbital science lab to provide the environment for rack-mounted payloads and for the crew to interact with wearable payloads."

A total of 13 experiments, both autonomous and manual, were conducted during the roughly 90-minute flight. These included experiments designed to investigate space motion sickness as well as cell culture performance in suborbital flight.

Update 11:45 ET: VSS Unity touches down

Galactic 01 touched down roughly 40 minutes after takeoff, drawing a successful first commercial flight to a close for Sir Richard Branson's space tourism company.

The successful mission is a massive step for a company whose only real competitor, Blue Origin, is currently grounded after an anomaly led to a capsule abort during a suborbital science mission last year.

Sir Richard Branson, who owns the Virgin Group, Virgin Galactic's parent company, became the first billionaire to fly to space when he flew aboard VSS Unity on July 11, 2021, just a few days before Jeff Bezos' first flight aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket.

Virgin Galactic announced in a statement about today's launch that its second commercial spaceflight, Galactic 02, is scheduled to take place in early August.

That mission will be Virgin Galactic's "first spaceflight with private astronauts", according to Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier. Then, from August onward, the private space company means to continue operating commercial spaceflights on a monthly basis.

You can watch the live broadcast of the launch, as it happened, via the embedded video below.

This was a live article and it was updated as new information emerged.

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