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Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight takes passengers and payloads to space

Update: The vessel landed safely after a successful launch. Updated headline and images; original story follows.

Today, Virgin Galactic will launch its commercial space tourism service, a long-awaited debut that puts the company at risk.

Galactic 01, the company’s 90-minute flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico, will begin after 9:00 AM local time. Virgin contracted in 2019 to transport three Italian Air Force and National Research Council of Italy (CRN) officials to suborbital space.

Blue Origin’s vertical rocket launches a capsule to suborbital space, unlike Virgin’s horizontal rocket. Instead, Virgin’s VSS Unity spacecraft rides on a customized aircraft called VMS Eve, which Virgin calls the “mothership.” Unity detaches from VMS Eve at 50,000 feet and starts its engine.

If today’s mission succeeds, Virgin will fly a second commercial flight in August and then monthly. Given demand, the company has 800 paying customers, most of whom paid $250,000 or less for a ticket.

This first mission will determine whether the company can prove its suborbital spaceplane is a worthy vessel for customers. Virgin announced this week that it had raised $300 million through a common stock offering, with plans to raise another $400 million.

The firm needs funds. Virgin has capital-intensive plans to upgrade its fleet from VMS Eve carriers to Delta planes, despite having $874 million in cash and securities at the end of the first quarter. Virgin plans to fly them 400 times a year once they start flying crew in 2026.

First, today’s flight. Three Italian Air Force and CNR members will carry 13 scientific payloads to suborbital space to study microgravity and spaceflight’s effects on liquids, human tissue, and other materials. The spacecraft cabin will house autonomous payloads.

Mission commander Colonel Walter Villadei, who began astronaut training at NASA via Axiom Space in 2021, and physician Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Landolfi represent the Italian Air Force. CNR engineer Pantaleone Carlucci and Virgin’s lead astronaut instructor Colin Bennett will also travel. Richard Branson and Bennett flew Virgin’s first crewed mission in July 2021.

Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile will pilot VSS Unity alongside the crew. Kelly Latimer and Jameel Janjua pilot VMS Eve.

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