Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic (SPCE) successfully launched its first commercial flight with four passengers on board today (June 29) from Spaceport America in New Mexico, marking a long-awaited milestone for the space tourism company founded nearly two decades ago.
A Virgin Galactic spaceplane called VSS Unity attached to a mothership called VMS Eve took to the sky at about 10:15 a.m. in the desert of southwestern New Mexico. The spaceplane separated from the mothership at 11:30 a.m. and reached the maximum altitude of about 85 kilometers (53 miles), where the passengers experienced brief moments of zero gravity and floated around in the cabin, according to flight video live streamed today.
The mission, named “Galactic 01,” carried four pilots and four passengers between the mothership and VSS Unity. The mothership was flown by American commander Kelly Latimer and Canadian pilot Jameel Janjua, and the VSS Unity was piloted by American commander Mike Masucci and Italian pilot Nicola Pecile.
Aboard the VSS Unity passenger cabin were two members of the Italian Air Force—Col. Walter Villadei and Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi—and Pantaleone Carlucci, an engineer with Italy’s National Research Council. They were tasked with conducting microgravity research.
Also aboard was Colin Bennett, a Virgin Galactic astronaut instructor who flew with Branson on the company’s first crewed test flight in July 2021. Bennett was there to assess the comfort and function of the inaugural commercial flight and use that information to inform future missions.
Today’s flight lasted about 90 minutes. The VSS Unity spaceplane safely returned to Earth and landed on a runway in Spaceport America at 11:45 a.m.
Virgin Galactic currently sells suborbital flights for $450,000 per seat. Today’s mission was funded by the Italian Air Force. In August, Virgin Galactic plans to launch “Galactic 02” with private astronauts on board. The company plans to launch at least one commercial spaceflight a month after that. It has a backlog of more than 800 passengers who have put down a deposit.
Virgin Galactic shares jumped in the days leading up to today’s inaugural commercial flight, but fell more than 10 percent today after the event as the hype wears off.