A private space company founded in 2004 by British billionaire Richard Branson began flying paying customers to space Thursday, a significant milestone for the venture that caters to those who are rich enough to pay for an experience that includes a few minutes of weightlessness and views of the Earth’s curvature from more than 50 miles above the surface of the planet. A giant twin-fuselage “mothership” aircraft flies to a high altitude, then drops a rocket-powered plane that soars into the blackness of space at nearly Mach 3 before gliding back to Earth. On Thursday, two Italian air force colonels and an aeronautical engineer from Italy’s National Research Council flew with the pilots of the aircraft on a 90-minute sub-orbital flight that reached a point where the aircraft’s rocket engine cut off, and the passengers experienced three to four minutes of weightlessness before the vehicle re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.
During the flight, named Galactic 01 by the company, passengers dangled from straps in Unity’s cabin and leaned out of windows to experience a stunning view of the curvature of the Earth. They also conducted 13 supervised experiments, including measuring radiation levels in the under-studied mesosphere and studying how certain liquids and solids mix in microgravity. Branson has long argued that his company, which has a backlog of 800 flight tickets on the aircraft, which may cost up to $450,000 per seat, is poised to take the lead in the emerging sector of commercial space tourism. Rival spaceflight firm Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has already completed several commercial passenger flights with its more traditional New Shepard rocket ship and capsule.
Branson said Thursday’s flight was “fantastic,” adding that he hopes it will be followed by regular service to space and eventually the creation of a fleet of 400 planes capable of carrying hundreds of customers a year. The company will resume ticket sales at $250,000 per seat in early August to offer monthly flights to space.
Virgin Galactic has several safety concerns to overcome, including that its rocket-powered spacecraft is tethered to its mothership for the duration of its flight. And it has a steep learning curve to climb in the highly competitive field of commercial spaceflight, as many companies are competing to offer flights allowing wealthy individuals to see what space is like.
To do so, the spacecraft Unity is tethered to VSS Eve, an aircraft that carries it to an altitude of about 50,000 feet before the rocket motor in Unity ignites. At that point, the VSS Eve and Unity separate, and VSS Eve glides to a landing on a runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico. As VSS Eve glides down to a stop, its two wing fins rotate back to normal positions. That enables the pilots to maneuver the spacecraft into its final vertical descent into the spaceport’s 12,000-foot-long runway.