Virgin Galactic completes first commercial 'space flight'
Virgin Galactic hopes the inaugural commercial flight could see them operate such flights on a monthly basis, after almost 20 years getting the project off the ground
Virgin Galactic's rocket-powered plane, VSS Unity, successfully took three customers and three crew to the edge of space on Thursday, almost 20 years after British billionaire Richard Branson founded the venture in 2004.
The vessel takes off strapped to a support plane, called Eve, then separates in mid-air and fires its rocket to climb almost vertically towards the edge of space.
On Thursday, the plane peaked at an altitude of 279,000 feet (roughly 85 kilometers or 53 miles).
That's just a short distance clear of what US authorities consider to be the start of space for the purposes of aircraft (50 miles), although it's quite a way shy of another commonly used benchmark, the Karman line (at about 62 miles).
At the apex of the flight, with the rocket shut down, the crew then experienced a few minutes of weightlessness before the Unity shifted into re-entry mode and began its gliding descent back to Earth.
The entire flight lasted some 75 minutes. Unity touched down safely at Spaceport America in New Mexico, part of which Virgin Galactic leases.
First non-test flight with third party passengers
Two Italian air force officers and an aerospace engineer joined as the customers on the flight, along with three Virgin Galactic crew members, two of them piloting the vehicle.
Italy's Air Force and National Research Council had paid for a spot on the plane, partly to provide Colonel Walter Villadei with part of his training prior to departure for a stint aboard the International Space Station. Villadei could be seen on the company's livestream of the flight unveiling an Italian flag as the passengers experienced weightlessness.
The crew were nevertheless billed as a scientific one rather than a fully commercial one, given the guests' professional connection to space flight and their plans to conduct various experiments on board.
But it was still Virgin Galactic's first flight that also carried third-party passengers, an important milestone for the delayed project.
Billionaire Branson has a waiting list of some 800 customers who have paid between $250,000 (roughly €235,000) and $450,000 for such a trip.
Branson himself made such a flight in July 2021 and had been planning to launch regular commercial flights by the start of 2022. But various setbacks, including the project being temporarily grounded for deviating from its flight plan in Branson's flight, delayed the process.
The company now hopes to carry out one more test flight next month, and to then commence monthly commercial launches. It says it is working on a new aircraft that would be able to make the trip on a weekly basis.
Bezos, Musk and Branson trying to bring fellow billionaires the stars
Amazon's Jeff Bezos and SpaceX's Elon Musk are both also trying to monetize providing a nascent taste of 21st century spaceflight to the super rich.
Bezos has criticized Virgin Galactic for falling short of the mark, arguing that his vehicle, Blue Origin, does hit the 62-mile Karman line marker that's internationally seen as the start of space. Blue Origin has also already flown several passenger flights, including publicity stunts like taking actor William Shatner, or Captain Kirk in the Star Trek television series, into orbit.
Elon Musk, meanwhile, plans to usher the world's first ever "space tourist" back into orbit soon.
US engineer-turned-investment banker Dennis Tito paid a reported $20 million back in 2001 for a seat on a Russian Soyuz capsule with two cosmonauts.
Last October, Tito said he had signed up to be one of the first passengers on board Musk's "Starship" vessel — which is yet to go into space and is still under development — which intends to take people around the moon.
Such tickets are likely to make the cost of entry for Blue Origin and Virgin Galctic look comparatively cheap, though Musk has not floated any possible price range.
Thursday's successful flight comes a week after the risks and rewards of so-called "adventure tourism" were thrown into sharp relief by the fatal implosion of the Titan submersible, which was taking wealthy customers to the seabed of the Atlantic Ocean to look at the wreck of the Titanic.