After long wait, Virgin Galactic begins commercial spaceflights

Virgin Galactic is expected to begin commercial spaceflights on Thursday, a significant milestone for the business founded in 2004 by British entrepreneur Richard Branson.

Its first paying clients are a three-person crew from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council of Italy, with a Virgin Galactic astronaut instructor filling the fourth seat.

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The 90-minute flight, dubbed Galactic 01, will launch from Spaceport America in New Mexico and will contain multiple suborbital science experiments, according to a statement from the business.

On Virgin Galactic’s website, a livestream will commence at 9:00 a.m. Mountain Time (1500 GMT).

It comes nearly two years after Branson flew to the last frontier in a test trip intended to usher in a new age of profitable space travel.

However, the firm later suffered hurdles, including a brief grounding by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which discovered that the Branson flight departed from its allotted airspace and that Virgin Galactic failed to disclose the “mishap” as required.

Later, lab testing indicated that specific materials used in the company’s vehicles had slipped below necessary strength margins, forcing fleet updates.

In May, the corporation successfully completed its spaceflight pause, opening the way for Thursday’s trip.

Virgin Galactic employs a “mothership” aircraft with two pilots that takes off from a runway, climbs to a high altitude, and then drops a rocket-powered plane into space at roughly Mach 3 before gliding back to Earth.

Passengers in the space plane’s cabin experience weightlessness for a few minutes and see the planet’s curvature from more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) above sea level.

Colonel Walter Villadei and Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Landolf of the Italian Air Force, Pantaleone Carlucci of the National Research Council of Italy, and Colin Bennett of Virgin Galactic are among those on Thursday’s voyage.

The spaceplane has two pilots, while the mothership has two.
The crew will execute 13 supervised and autonomous experiments in the cabin, collecting data about their suits and sensors.

Experiments include detecting radiation levels in the understudied mesosphere and the mixing of specific liquids and solids in microgravity.

Between 2005 and 2014, Virgin Galactic sold 600 tickets for future commercial flights for $200,000 to $250,000, and 200 since then for $450,000 apiece.

Seats were quickly snapped up by movie stars and celebrities, but the company’s program suffered a disaster in 2014 when a spaceplane on a test flight broke apart midair, killing the copilot and critically wounding the pilot.

It competes in the “suborbital” space tourism market with Blue Origin, a business founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos that has already sent 32 people into space.

However, Blue Origin’s rocket has been suspended following an unmanned flying disaster in September 2022. In March, the firm stated that it would begin spaceflight soon.

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