Virgin Galactic completes first commercial spaceship to suborbital flight

Updated with comments from Flight 4:40 Eastern later,

Spaceport America, NM – After nearly two decades of development, Virgin Galactic conducted its first commercial spaceship to suborbital flight on June 29.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle VSS Unity separated from its VMS Eve mothership aircraft at approximately 11:29 a.m. Eastern above cloudy skies over southern New Mexico. The vehicles took off from Spaceport America at 10:30 a.m. Eastern.

Unity fired up the mission, designated Galactic 01, firing its hybrid rocket motor for about 60 seconds. It reached a peak altitude of 85.1 km before landing on the runway at 11:43 am Eastern Spacecraft.

“It was excellent,” Mike Moses, president of spaceline missions and safety at Virgin Galactic, said in an interview after the flight. “Everything was right in the middle.”

The Galactic 01 mission was a research flight for the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council of Italy. Virgin Galactic and the Italian Air Force signed a contract for the flight in October 2019, agreeing to fly three Italian payload specialists on a dedicated research flight.

The mission, called Verchut 1 by the Italian government, included Colonels Walter Villadei and Lieutenant Colonels Angelo Landolfi of the Italian Air Force and Pantaleone Carlucci of Italy’s National Research Council. The trio planned to conduct 13 experiments during the mission, ranging from biomedical data collection to fluid mechanics and microgravity studies of combustion.

In a post-flight press conference, all three Italians said they were happy with the flight. “It was much better than expected,” said Viladei, who commanded Verchutt 1. He added that the crew was able to complete all its planned experiments.

Viladei, who previously trained with Axiom Space for a commercial flight to the International Space Station and was backup for that company’s X-2 mission in May, said he believes such a Sub-orbital flights are a good stepping stone to orbital missions. “It’s really a good environment and opportunity to test all the things that astronauts are supposed to do once they get to the ISS.”

The research nature of flying left him little time to enjoy flying. “There was little time to look out the window,” Landolfi said. “I had the opportunity to look outside very quickly and it was beautiful.”

Colonel Walter Viladei speaks at Spaceport America
Italian Air Force Colonel Walter Villadei (with microphone) speaks at Spaceport America after his Galactic 01 suborbital space flight. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Faust

Also on board the flight was Virgin Galactic astronaut instructor Colin Bennett, who previously flew on the VSS Unity in 2021. He flew during the flight to monitor the research environment and “overall evaluate the research mission so that we can continuously improve it.” experience,” Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, said in a June 28 interview.

The VSS Unity was flown by Mike Masucci, making his fourth space flight, as well as Nicola Paceil, a former Italian Air Force pilot who now works for Virgin and was on his first space flight.

Company founder Richard Branson announced plans for Virgin Galactic in September 2004, just before SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize with a pair of suborbital flights from Mojave Air and the Space Port. Virgin Galactic will license SpaceShipOne’s technology from vehicle developer Scaled Composites and funder Paul Allen for a larger vehicle capable of carrying up to six passengers.

At the time, Virgin Galactic considered starting commercial service in 2007 at the earliest. However, the development of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, now called VMS Eve, and SpaceShipTwo took longer than anticipated. The company also suffered the loss of the first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Enterprise, in a test flight accident in October 2014, which killed Scaled Composites pilot Mike Ellsbury.

The company appeared in July ready to begin commercial service in 2021 with the Unity 22 flight carrying Branson as well as several Virgin Galactic employees. An Italian Air Force flight was scheduled for that autumn, followed by a maintenance period for both VMS Eve and VSS Unity. However, Virgin decided to start that maintenance period early in October 2021 and delayed the Italian flight.

Virgin Galactic resumed test flights of the VSS Unity this spring, including a May 25 flight called Unity 25, which was the vehicle’s first suborbital spaceflight since the Unity 22 mission. After Unity 25, the company said it was ready to begin commercial service with the Galactic 01 flight.

At the time the company said it would follow Galactic 01 with a series of private astronaut missions on a monthly cadence, serving a backlog of about 800 people who have signed up so far. The first of those, Galactic 02, is scheduled for August.

Moses said the company plans to have monthly flights through the end of the year. The pace is primarily based on inspection of vehicles between flights, a process that will be simplified and shortened for future delta-class spaceplanes the company is designing.

“As we do this and we don’t get anything, we’ll be able to tone it down a little bit and move a little bit faster,” he said. “But the reality is that while we only have one spacecraft, flying once a month is a good cadence for us.”

“This historic flight was our first commercial flight and our first dedicated commercial research mission, ushering in a new era of repeatable and reliable access to space for private travelers and researchers,” Virgin Galactic chief executive Michael Kolglazier said in a post. It was the beginning.” flight details. He confirmed plans to launch private astronaut flights in August.

However, the financial markets were not affected by this. Shares of Virgin Galactic closed down about 10.8% on June 29, with most of the losses stemming from post-flight trading.

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