Virgin Galactic launched its first commercial flight to the edge of space with a crew of six astronauts on 29 June.
Richard Branson’s space firm has now joined a small club of companies, along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, that can ferry paying customers to space.
The VSS Unity, a rocket-powered spaceplane, was strapped to a carrier plane for takeoff from Truth or Consequences in New Mexico. The mission, called Galactic 01, didn’t carry space tourists, but rather two members of the Italian Air Force and a research engineer.
The three of them used the flight to collect scientific information in microgravity, including biometric data, cognitive data and how well certain biomedically relevant liquids and solids mix. They also used the experience as training for potential future missions to the International Space Station. The passengers were joined by two pilots and a flight engineer from Virgin Galactic.
Once the carrier vehicle reached an altitude of around 15 kilometres, it released the VSS Unity, which activated its rocket engine for a steep climb to 80 kilometres above Earth, travelling at around three times the speed of sound. The crew then experienced 5 minutes of weightlessness before descending back to Earth.
The 80-kilometre mark has been criticised by some as not being truly beyond the atmosphere. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, which maintains records for human space flight, classifies space as beginning at the Kármán line, 100 kilometres above sea level. However, NASA and the US Air Force say that anyone who goes beyond 80 kilometres counts as an astronaut.
This isn’t the first Virgin Galactic launch to reach this altitude – Branson himself did so in 2021 – but it is the first commercial operation. The VSS Unity’s next flight, called Galactic 02, is planned for August this year. It will carry members of the public, who will pay $450,000 each for the trip.
“This flight was very important not only for the experiments… but also because we are studying other ways for space access – not just vertical access but horizontal access,” said Italian Air Force Major General Maurizio Cantiello during the livestream. Of the small group of companies providing trips to space, Virgin Galactic is the only one using a space plane instead of a more traditional rocket.
The success of this flight also bolsters Branson’s efforts in space, after the loss of a prior rocket led to the shuttering of his satellite launch company Virgin Orbit earlier this year.