Virgin Galactic Completes First Commercial Spaceflight

Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic venture have completed its inaugural commercial spaceflight on Thursday.

The American spaceflight company announced the successful completion of its ‘Galactic 01’ flight to the edge of space, carrying three crew members from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council of Italy, as well as 13 research payloads.

This is the second successful launch in two months, after Virgin Galactic returned to space flight operations with a test flight in May, after a nearly two year year break.

Galactic 01 flight

Galactic 01 was the first commercial (i.e. purchased) spaceflight from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The VSS Unity was carried by its host plane, VSS Eve, to a height of 44,500 feet before a rocket ignited and blasted VSS Unity to 52.9 miles above the earth.

The Virgin Galactic space plane utilises a twin-fuselaged mothership, to carry the spaceplane and its passengers up to a high altitude.

The Virgin Galactic spaceplane is a winged plane with a single rocket motor. It detaches from the mothership before it fires its main rocket, pushing it up to the edge of space.

At the top of the flight path the vehicle is suspended in weightlessness for four minutes, allowing the passengers to enjoy panoramic views of the Earth as the spaceplane rotates and begins its glide down to earth.

Outer space is classified by the United States, the US Federal Aviation Administration, the US military and NASA as starting 50 miles above the earth’s surface.

But an international definition of space is known as the Kármán Line, an imaginary boundary 100 kilometers (62 miles) above mean sea level.

Thirteen human-tended and autonomous experiments were conducted on board Galactic 01 to examine the biomedical field, thermo-fluid dynamics and the development of innovative and sustainable materials in microgravity conditions.

The crew onboard Galactic 01 compromised of:

  • Col. Walter Villadei, Italian Air Force
  • Lt. Col Angelo Landolfi, Physician, Italian Air Force
  • Pantaleone Carlucci, Engineer, National Research Council of Italy
  • Colin Bennett, Astronaut Instructor, Virgin Galactic

VSS Unity was piloted by commander Mike Masucci and pilot Nicola Pecile, with VMS Eve piloted by commander Kelly Latimer and pilot Jameel Janjua.

Historic flight

Virgin Galactic will now begin post-flight inspections and analysis in preparation for its next commercial space mission, Galactic 02, slated for August, with Virgin Galactic planning monthly flights to space beginning thereafter.

“Today, our team successfully flew six people and more than a dozen research payloads to space in VSS Unity, our unique, suborbital science lab,” said Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier.

“This historic flight was our first commercial flight and our first dedicated commercial research mission – ushering in a new era of repeatable and reliable access to space for private passengers and researchers,” said Colglazier.

“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,” said Colglazier.

“I am beyond proud to be a part of this historic spaceflight. Galactic 01 is Italy’s first commercial suborbital research spaceflight, and an amazing achievement made possible thanks to the long-lasting collaboration between the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council of Italy,” added Col. Walter Villadei of the Italian Air Force.

Galactic 01 spaceflight.
Image credit Virgin Galactic

“During the centennial year of both Italian institutions, we fly to the highest point of our history,” said Col. Villadei. “Together, and in partnership with Virgin Galactic, we have set a precedent for future endeavours and the boundless possibilities that lie ahead.”

Lengthy delay

The flight comes after a lengthy delay due to an official US investigation.

Virgin Galactic venture had made history in July 2021, when a debut flight from New Mexico carried Sir Richard and three fellow crewmembers, plus two pilots, to its maximum height of 53 miles above the Earth, which is high enough to reach NASA’s classification of ‘astronaut’.

That flight kick-started the space tourism industry, and came ahead of the 11 minute flight of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin venture, after his rocket flew to more than 65 miles above the planet, nine days after the Virgin Galactic flight.

However Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has beaten Virgin Galactic in the race to take paying passengers on spaceflights.

This was because Virgin Galactic had to endure a nearly two hiatus since its July 2021 debut, and for a while it could not sell space tourism tickets.

FAA investigation

The reason was that during its July 2021 flight with Sir Richard onboard, the space plane had travelled outside its designated airspace for 41 seconds.

The US Federal Aviation Administration then grounded future flights whilst it investigated the brief flight deviation.

At the time Virgin Galactic said the pilots had encountered unexpectedly high winds at high altitude and took the actions necessary to complete a safe climb into space and return to Earth.

The FAA review concluded in September 2021, and Virgin Galactic was given the all clear to resume flights.

But Virgin Galactic then announced it was delaying the resumption of commercial services, because of unrelated technology upgrades.

In February 2022 Virgin Galactic reopened sales of its $450,000 tickets that provides a 90 minute flight to the edge of space.

The space tourism entity planned to resume commercial flights in October 2022.

But the lengthy spacecraft upgrade period lasted longer than Virgin Galactic anticipated.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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