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Virgin Galactic finally gets its first paying customers to edge of space

It only took nearly 20 years and one death to get there

Video Virgin Galactic today sent six people to the edge of space in its first-ever commercial flight.

The mission, dubbed Galactic 01, took off at 0830 MT (1430 UTC) from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Onboard the VSS Unity spacecraft were a Virgin Galactic pilot, commander, and astronaut instructor, and the space biz's first paying customers: a mission commander, physician, and engineer all admittedly in the Italian Air Force.

The spacecraft was taken by its mothership VMS Eve, controlled by another pilot and commander from Virgin Galactic, to an altitude of 44,500 feet (13.5km) before it was released. VSS Unity then fired its rockets, boosting the craft to almost three times the speed of sound, to reach a maximum height of 52.9 miles (85km) above ground, which is technically space by US measurements but falls just short of the internationally accepted Kármán Line, 62 miles up.

The Italian Air Force crew at least experienced a few minutes of weightlessness, and had with them equipment for 13 experiments analyzing the effects of microgravity on the human body and other materials. The ship then began its glide back to Earth and landed at 0942 MT (1542 UTC). Similarly, Virgin Galactic's stock price glided down ten percent today.

You can replay the trip below.

Youtube Video

In a press conference after the flight, Colonel Walter Villadei, the Italian Air Force's mission commander, said Virgin Galactic flights fill an important gap for researchers looking to carry out short experiments in space.

"If you look at the opportunities that the international community really has nowadays, to fly in microgravity you can either fly for a few seconds in parabolic flights, like between 20 to 30 seconds, or you have to fly to the International Space Station for six months. There's nothing in between," he said. 

"It was really beneficial to us because we had an extended period of time - two almost three minutes - but the fact that you are flying within a plane [means] you may have more power, more upload mass, less restrictions, you can even expand the possibilities for the research community."

Who was onboard?

  • Unity pilot: Nicola Pecile, Virgin Galactic
  • Unity commander: Mike Masucci, Virgin Galactic
  • Unity astronaut instructor: Colin Bennett, Virgin Galactic
  • Mission commander: Col. Walter Villadei, Italian Air Force
  • Physician: Lt. Col Angelo Landolfi, Italian Air Force
  • Engineer: Pantaleone Carlucci, Italian Air Force and also of the National Research Council of Italy

VMS Eve was flown by commander Kelly Latimer and pilot Jameel Janjua. The VSS stands for Virgin Space Ship, and VMS is Virgin Mother... ship.

Founded in 2004 by beardy British billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic has taken nearly two decades to finally carry out its inaugural commercial flight. The company suffered numerous setbacks and delays, including a lethal crash of its VSS Enterprise.

Its spinoff Virgin Orbit, set up to fly small satellite payloads into space, shut down earlier this year after failing a launch attempt in January and running out of cash.

Space tourism looks like a better bet for Branson with Virgin Galactic seats going for $450,000 apiece. CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement: "Galactic 02', our first spaceflight with private astronauts, is planned for August and we expect VSS Unity to continue with monthly space missions while we simultaneously work to scale our future spaceship fleet for a global audience."

Virgin Galactic faces fierce competition, however, as the commercial spaceflight industry takes off. Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin has flown civilians with little to zero experience in space a little further out. Meanwhile, Elon Musk's SpaceX went next level to send travelers on short trips all the way to the International Space Station.

At least the Unity didn't do a Titan. ®

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