After 19 Years, Virgin Galactic Brings Customers to Space

Spaceplane carried trio of Italian researchers
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 30, 2023 6:44 AM CDT
After 19 Years, Virgin Galactic Brings Customers to Space
This Thursday, June 29, 2023, image provided by Virgin Galactic shows Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei holding up an Italian flag as he and other Italian researchers experience a few moments of weightlessnesss.   (Virgin Galactic via AP)

Almost 20 years after British billionaire Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic, the company has taken is first paying customers to the edge of space. The company's VSS Unity rocket plane took three Italian passengers to suborbital space Thursday in a journey that lasted 72 minutes from takeoff to touchdown at Spaceport America in New Mexico, reports. Col. Walter Villadei ad Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi from the Italian Air Force and engineer Pantaleone Carlucci from Italy's National Research Council carried out a range of experiments during the flight, most of them involving weightlessness.

The VMS Eve mothership released Unity after ascending to more than 40,000 feet, CNN reports.The spacecraft also carried company astronaut instructor Colin Bennett and pilots Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile. With Pecile and the three passengers, this was the first time four Italians have been in space at the same time and Villadei celebrated by unfurling an Italian flag in microgravity, the AP reports. Branson and five crewmates went to space in a 2021 test flight but this is the first time any of the approximately 800 people who have bought Virgin Galactic tickets have made the journey.

Virgin plans to take passengers to space on Unity monthly starting in August, but it would take almost 17 years to clear the backlog at that rate, Quartz reports. The company—which initially predicted the flights would begin in 2007—plans to bring a new series of rocket planes into service in 2026, which it hopes will bring the rate up to one journey per week, with tickets selling for up to $450,000. Thursday's mission was called Galactic 01 and the August flight will be Galactic 02, the BBC reports. (More Virgin Galactic stories.)

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