By Jackie Wattles, CNN
(CNN) — Virgin Galactic, the venture founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, successfully launched its first paying customers to the edge of space — a milestone two decades in the making.
The company’s inaugural commercial flight Thursday was a research-focused mission with Italian Air Force-funded passengers — rather than a group of celebrities and wealthy thrill seekers similar to those flown by Virgin Galactic’s chief competitor, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. (Future Virgin Galactic flights, however, are expected to include a range of high-profile customers.)
The mission carried two Italian Air Force personnel — Col. Walter Villadei, who is also slated to travel to orbit on a future paid SpaceX mission; and Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi, a physician who has trained as a crew surgeon for Russian cosmonauts.
Also on board were Pantaleone Carlucci, an engineer with Italy’s National Research Council, and Colin Bennett, a Virgin Galactic astronaut instructor who flew alongside Branson on the company’s highly publicized 2021 mission. Bennett’s role was to assess the comfort and function of the flight, using that information to inform future changes Virgin Galactic might make to its rocket-powered space plane, VSS Unity.
The group’s journey played out in several stages. It began at Virgin Galactic’s spaceport in New Mexico, where the passengers boarded VSS Unity as it sat attached beneath the wing of a massive twin-fuselage mothership, an aircraft called VMS Eve.
VMS Eve took off much like an airplane, barreling down a runway before it ascended to more than 40,000 feet (12,192 meters). After reaching its designated altitude, VMS Eve released the VSS Unity, which then fired its rocket engine for about one minute as it swooped directly upward, sending it vaulting toward the stars.
The vehicle ventured more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) above Earth’s surface, the altitude that the United States government considers the edge of outer space. (Internationally, the Kármán line, located 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level, is often used to mark the boundary between our planet and space — but there’s a lot of gray area.)
The space plane reached supersonic speeds as it hurled upward. And at the peak of its flight, the vehicle spent a few minutes in weightlessness as it entered freefall and glided back to the spaceport for a runway landing. The entire journey lasted about an hour and a half.
Zero-gravity research goals
Those brief moments that VSS Unity spent in zero gravity are precisely what researchers are interested in. Organizations such as NASA have routinely flown experiments on suborbital rockets, including Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin missions.
The weightless environment can offer scientists a better fundamental understanding of how something works — and reveal interesting information about a material’s behavior in space. Sending research on suborbital missions can also be far cheaper than launching an experiment to the International Space Station, which requires much larger rockets and faster speeds.
On this suborbital trek, the Italian Air Force and National Research Council selected a suite of 13 experiments. It included research into how the passengers’ heart rates behave during acceleration, an attempt to measure cosmic radiation in the upper atmosphere, and an examination of how various biofuels behave under different pressures in microgravity.
Virgin Galactic’s journey
This mission marked one of the most significant steps forward for Virgin Galactic since the company was founded in the early 2000s, after Branson became enamored with a space plane developed by aircraft designer Burt Rutan and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. Branson initially thought he could begin flying wealthy customers as early as 2008.
But it wasn’t that simple. Virgin Galactic has spent the past two decades working to ready an upgraded version of Rutan’s space plane — designed to be large enough to carry passengers in the cabin — for commercial service.
The company has also been losing money for years, burning through funds as it has attempted to finish its test flights and begin welcoming customers — some of whom paid for their tickets more than a decade ago.
The company has sold about 800 tickets, including 600 at prices up to $250,000 and another couple hundred at $450,000 per ticket.
Space tourism risks
Virgin Galactic’s launch comes amid heightened awareness of high-stakes tours undertaken by wealthy adventurers after the loss on June 18 of an OceanGate Expeditions submersible bound for the Titanic wreckage in the Atlantic Ocean. Five people died, including three who had purchased tickets that cost about $250,000 each, according to the company’s website.
The parallels between deep-sea exploration and space tourism are striking: Many of the same people who have ventured to the ocean’s depths have also purchased tickets to space. That includes the late Hamish Harding, a Blue Origin passenger in 2022 who died in the OceanGate submersible.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have routinely emphasized the importance of safety, saying it is paramount to their individual success as well as the overall industry. Much like deep-sea exploration, however, traveling to space comes with inherent risks.
In a tragic 2014 accident, Virgin Galactic’s space plane broke apart during flight, killing the mission’s copilot, Michael Alsbury. (That test flight was overseen by a third-party company, Scaled Composites, and was operated under an experimental license.)
And a Blue Origin rocket exploded on ascent in 2022, though it was not carrying human passengers and the vehicle’s safety abort functioned as intended, suggesting a crew would have survived.
Much like deep-sea diving, the commercial space industry is largely self-regulated in the United States. Congress has placed a moratorium on new regulations for private human spaceflight, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The moratorium — which has been extended several times since it was implemented in 2004 and is set to expire again in October — is intended to give avant-garde space companies the opportunity to develop and test innovative technologies without burdensome regulatory frameworks, similar to how commercial aviation began in the 20th century.
The FAA does, however, license commercial rocket launches. But its current role requires it to ensure the safety of bystanders and nearby property — not focus on protecting the passengers on board. Currently, paying customers who travel to space must sign “informed consent” documents acknowledging the risks before their flight.
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