Virgin Galactic’s first commercial space flight safely lands

Passengers and crew on VSS Unity rocket plane go for 75-minute suborbital ride to edge of space in landmark flight.

Virgin Galactic, the company founded by United Kingdom entrepreneur Richard Branson in 2004, has successfully completed 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 joined a Virgin Galactic instructor and the spaceplane’s two pilots on a suborbital ride on Thursday that took them about 80km (50 miles) above the New Mexico desert.

The VSS Unity spaceplane then glided safely back to its starting point on a runway at Spaceport America, a state-owned complex near the New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences.

The flight, called Galactic 01, lasted about 75 minutes and was completed two years after the company’s first fully crewed test spaceflight of its VSS Unity rocket plane. The successful trip marks a turning point for Virgin Galactic Holding Inc, which has been developing its commercial service for nearly 20 years while facing regular development setbacks.

“Welcome to space, astronauts,” Virgin Galactic’s Sirisha Bandla said during a live stream of the launch.

The US space agency, NASA, and the US air force define an astronaut as anyone who has flown at least 80km (50 miles) above Earth.

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, which 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 experienced a few minutes of weightlessness and were able to catch a glimpse of the planet’s curvature during their trip on Thursday.

Virgin Galactic has sold about 800 tickets for its commercial flights – 600 were sold from 2005 to 2014 for $200,000 to $250,000 each, 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.

Thursday’s flight also had scientific aims with the crew planning to collect biometric data, measure cognitive performance and record how certain liquids and solids mix in microgravity.

According to Virgin Galactic, the company’s next scheduled commercial space flight, Galactic 02, is planned in August, and monthly flights to space are expected to be rolled out after 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 during an unmanned flight, Blue Origin’s rocket has been grounded. The company promised in March to resume spaceflights soon.

Thursday’s launch comes shortly after Branson’s Virgin Orbit announced it was ceasing operations following a mission failure in the United Kingdom.

In January, the California-based company 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.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies