Virgin Galactic, the company founded by United Kingdom entrepreneur Richard Branson in 2004, is scheduled to undertake its first commercial flight to the edge of space.
Two Italian air force officers and an aerospace engineer from the National Research Council of Italy are scheduled to join a Virgin Galactic instructor and the spaceplane’s two pilots on a suborbital ride on Thursday that will take them about 80km (50 miles) above the New Mexico desert.
The flight, dubbed Galactic 01, will take 90 minutes and comes two years after the company’s first, fully crewed test spaceflight of its VSS Unity rocket plane.
Virgin Galactic uses a “mothership” aircraft with two pilots that takes off from a runway, gains high altitude, and then deploys the rocket-powered VSS Unity that soars into space at nearly Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound) before gliding back to Earth.
Passengers in the space plane’s cabin will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and will be able to catch a glimpse of the planet’s curvature during their scheduled trip on Thursday. A livestream of the flight begins at 15:00 GMT on Virgin Galactic’s website.
TOMORROW, we’re launching The Spaceline for Earth with #Galactic01, our first scientific research mission! You can watch the moment live at 9:00 am MDT | 11:00am EDT. Sign up so you don’t miss it: https://t.co/5UalYTpQxj pic.twitter.com/D7mBX8wDcH
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) June 28, 2023
Virgin Galactic has sold approximately 800 tickets for its commercial flights – 600 were sold between 2005 and 2014 for $200,000 to $250,000, and 200 have been sold since then for $450,000 each.
Movie stars and other celebrities were among the first to snap up seats, but the company’s programme suffered a disaster in 2014 when a spaceplane on a test flight broke apart midair, killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot.
According to Virgin Galactic, the company’s next scheduled commercial space flight – Galactic 02 – is planned for August, and monthly flights to space are expected to be rolled out following that launch.
Branson’s venture is competing in the “suborbital” space tourism sector with American billionaire Jeff Bezos’s company, Blue Origin, which has already sent 32 people into space. But since an accident in September 2022 during an unmanned flight, Blue Origin’s rocket has been grounded. The company promised in March to resume spaceflight soon.
Thursday’s scheduled launch comes shortly after Branson’s Virgin Orbit announced it was ceasing operations following a mission failure in the United Kingdom.
In January the company based in California sought to complete the first satellite launch from UK soil, with hopes the mission would be a considerable stepping stone for space exploration from the UK.
But the LauncherOne rocket failed to reach orbit and saw its payload of US and UK intelligence satellites dive into the ocean.