Virgin Galactic completes first flight into space with paying customers

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic finally flew its first paying customers to the edge of space on Thursday, completing a long-awaited milestone that comes nearly 20 years after the British billionaire began pursuing his dream of creating a space tourism venture.

The flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico was not full of wealthy thrill seekers, but was instead commissioned by the Italian government for a pair of Italian Air Force officers and an Italian engineer who used the mission as a training exercise and to conduct scientific experiments.

Instead of launching vertically in a traditional rocket and capsule, Virgin Galactic flies its passengers in a piloted spacecraft called Unity. The spacecraft is strapped to the belly of a twin-body aircraft, which flies to an altitude of about 45,000 feet.

Once the plane is up, it releases Unity, whose pilots ignite the engine and take it straight up until it passes an altitude of about 50 miles before falling back to Earth. The flights do not reach the runway. Their up-and-down trajectory goes through the room in just a few minutes.

On Thursday, the spacecraft landed softly on a runway at about 11:44 a.m. ET after reaching a top altitude of about 53 miles, the company said in a live broadcast. With the completion of its first commercial mission, the company said it hopes to begin flying a backlog of customers who have paid as much as $450,000 per ticket. In some cases, they have waited years to fly.

Richard Branson is going on a space mission with Virgin Galactic

The Virgin Galactic flight comes days after a commercial submersible operated by a private company, OceanGate, imploded, killing all five people on board and raising questions about how such extreme adventures should be regulated. In the world of commercial space travel, this debate has been going on for years and is beginning to intensify as a ban on strict rules imposed by Congress is set to expire.

The Federal Aviation Administration rules with a light touch, issuing launch and reentry licenses to ensure space companies protect people and property on the ground. But the regulations do not protect flight attendants, who only have to sign a waiver acknowledging that they understand the risks. As such, going to space is governed by the same “informed consent” standard used by other adventure industries such as skydiving.

Because the industry is considered to be in its infancy and still developing new spacecraft and new technology, Congress imposed a “learning period” in 2004 that prohibited the FAA from issuing regulations for passengers. This learning period was extended, but is now set to expire by October. Commercial space companies have argued that they have not made as much progress as they had expected, and therefore the learning period should be extended again.

In April, a Rand Corporation report recommended allowing the learning period to expire while ensuring the FAA had the necessary resources “for the right regulations.” In a statement to The Washington Post, the agency said it is “taking preparatory action now in case the moratorium/learning period expires and will continue if it is extended.”

Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeff Bezos, has been working with the FAA after its suborbital rocket, called New Shepard, suffered an engine failure during an unmanned flight last year. The company said it understands what caused the problems and is working to resume flights soon. Bezos was on its first human spaceflight in 2021. Since then, it has flown some paying customers, but has been grounded since the accident last September. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

On board the plane Thursday were Colonel Walter Villadei and Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Landolfi of the Italian Air Force and Pantaleone Carlucci of the Italian National Research Council. They carry a variety of scientific payloads to measure radiation in the mesosphere, the part of the atmosphere between 30 and 50 miles high, and to test how space travel affects the human body.

They were accompanied by Colin Bennett, a Virgin Galactic astronaut instructor, who flew on the company’s first human space mission with Branson in 2021. The Unity pilots are Mike Masucci, who has now flown Unity into space four times, and Nicola Pecile, an Italian, who was on his first flight aboard Unity.

Virgin Galactic, which has struggled with commercial operations, hopes the mission will mark a turning point. In its latest earnings report, it said it lost $159 million in the first quarter of this year, compared with a loss of $93 million a year earlier.

The company did not fly for nearly two years while it worked to refurbish its systems, including the transport aircraft. It is also focusing on a next-generation spaceplane called the Delta Class, which the company said will be able to fly more frequently than Unity. But it is not expected to be ready until 2026.

Branson first bought the rights to the technology in 2004, after SpaceShipOne became the first privately funded vehicle to reach space. In 2014, Virgin Galactic suffered a fatal accident when the spacecraft broke apart during a test flight, killing one of the pilots and seriously injuring the other.

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