Virgin Galactic Scores Success with First Commercial Spaceflight

Virgin Galactic Scores Success with First Commercial Spaceflight

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic finally launched its first commercial SpaceShipTwo flight today. Galactic-01 took four Italians and two Americans across the threshold between air and space for a few minutes of weightlessness. Three of the Italians were mission specialists conducting microgravity experiments while the fourth was one of the pilots. The next commercial flight now is planned for August with monthly flights thereafter.

SpaceShipTwo is an air-launched system where an aircraft or “mother ship” flies the spaceship up to about 45,000 feet and releases it. The spaceship then fires its rocket engine for the trip up and across the air/space line that Virgin Galactic and the FAA define as 50 miles (80 kilometers). Others, including competitor Blue Origin, use the international standard of 62 miles (100 kilometers).

Today Virgin Mother Ship (VMS) Eve took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico at 8:30 am local time (10:30 am Eastern) with U.S. Air Force Lt. Col (Ret.) Kelly Latimer in command and Jameel Janjua as pilot. Janjua is former Royal Canadian Air Force test pilot who became a U.S. Air Force experimental test pilot in 2014 and joined Virgin Galactic in 2020.

Pilots of VMS Eve for the first SpaceShipTwo commercial flight, Galactic-01: Kelly Latimer (U.S.), commander, and Jameel Janjua (Canada), pilot. Credit: Virgin Galactic

At 44,500 feet (13.56 km), VMS Eve released Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Unity.

After firing its engine, VSS Unity reached an altitude of 52.9 miles (85.1 km) and a top speed of Mach 2.88 before gliding back to a landing at Spaceport America at 9:42 am local time (11:42 am Eastern).

VSS Unity was commanded by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. (Ret.) Mike Masucci, with former Italian Air Force Lt. Col. Nicola Pecile as pilot. Of the six SpaceShipTwo flights that have reached space, Masucci has piloted or commanded four. This was Pecile’s first flight to space, although he was pilot on a VSS Unity glide flight in April. He joined Virgin Galactic in 2015 after a 20-year career in the Italian Air Force and 4 years as a flight instructor at the National Test Pilot School in Mojave, CA.

Commander Mike Masucci (U.S.) and pilot Nicola Pecile (Italy) for the Galactic-01 mission. Credit: Virgin Galactic

In the passenger cabin were two officers from the Italian Air Force, Col. Walter Villadei and Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi; a scientist from Italy’s National Research Council, Pantaleone Carlucci; and Virgin Galactic astronaut instructor Colin Bennett.

Passengers on Galactic-01. Credit: Virgin Galactic

In the few minutes of weightlessness they had, a number of scientific experiments were conducted, mostly autonomously in a science rack at the rear of the cabin. Villadei was also wearing a special instrumented flight suit to monitor biological metrics.

Passengers on Galactic-01 while weightless. Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei is holding the Italian flag. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic emphasized this was a scientific research mission and during a post-flight briefing the three Italian mission specialists were asked why it was important to have them there to do that research.

Villadei noted that he’s in training to fly to the International Space Station on a private astronaut mission with Axiom Space later this year. This type of flight provides an intermediate research opportunity between a few seconds of microgravity on a parabolic aircraft flight versus long durations on the ISS — a “gapfiller.” Compared to a parabolic flight, “we had an extended period of time, 2 almost 3 minutes” with “more power, more upload mass, less restrictions so you can even expand the possibilities for the research community.”

Carlucci added that from the Italian National Research Council’s perspective it opens up a new area of research. “We have a lot of experience in research in the field of the troposphere, in the field of the stratosphere, but the field that we flew in today was unknown.”  Landolfi, a physician, said it’s important to find out how these platforms can be used for medical research. His degrees include diving and hyberbaric medicine, public health and preventative medicine, legal medicine and forensic science, and he is a trained flight test surgeon.

The research was important, but they did take at least a few seconds to enjoy the experience.

Virgin Galactic said today the next commercial flight, Galactic-02, will be in August with all private astronauts, rather than government astronauts like those who flew today. The passenger list hasn’t been released, but 700 or more people reportedly have paid deposits for tickets that cost $250,000 per seat years ago, but now are $450,000. The plan is for monthly flights so it will take some time to work off that backlog.

The company is eager to begin earning revenue. During a financial earnings telecon on May 9, CEO Michael Colglazier said they experienced a net loss of $159 million in the first quarter of 2023, but nevertheless its cash position “remains strong.” It was $874 million as of March 31.

Colglazier said today they expect “VSS Unity to continue with monthly space missions while we simultaneoulsy work to scale our future spaceship fleet for a global audience.”

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