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Virgin Galactic successfully conducts inaugural commercial rocket plane flight into space

Virgin Galactic successfully launches first commercial flight to edge of space with Italian crew.

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, New Mexico (Reuters) - A historic moment unfolded on Thursday as a three-man crew from Italy embarked on a groundbreaking journey into space aboard a Virgin Galactic rocket plane. This marked the first flight of paying customers to the edge of space since British billionaire Richard Branson established the venture in 2004.

The crew consisted of two Italian air force officers and an aerospace engineer from the National Research Council of Italy. They were accompanied by three Virgin Galactic crew members, two of whom piloted the vehicle, VSS Unity. The rocket plane was launched at high altitude from the belly of its twin-fuselage carrier plane.

After approximately 75 minutes in the air, the Unity spaceplane safely returned to its starting point on a runway at Spaceport America, a state-owned complex near the appropriately named New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences. Virgin Galactic leases part of the facility.

This flight marked a significant breakthrough for Virgin Galactic Holding Inc, as it finally inaugurated commercial service after nearly two decades of development setbacks.

The company was founded by Richard Branson and renowned aerospace mogul Burt Rutan, stemming from the 2004 Ansari X Prize competition won by Rutan's experimental spaceplane. This competition served as the precursor to the design of Unity's SpaceShipTwo.

Virgin Galactic now joins the ranks of other commercial enterprises, such as Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin and Elon Musk's SpaceX, in catering to wealthy individuals seeking the thrill of supersonic rocket speed, microgravity, and the awe-inspiring view of Earth from space.

While this flight was labeled as a scientific mission, with the Italian crew collecting biometric data and conducting various experiments in microgravity conditions, it also served as astronaut training for Italian Air Force Colonel Walter Villadei, who aspires to embark on a future mission to the International Space Station.

The crew was composed of Colonel Villadei, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Landolfi, a physician and flight surgeon, Pantaleone Carlucci, a research council member acting as flight engineer and payload specialist, Colin Bennett, Virgin Galactic's lead "astronaut instructor," and Unity's two pilots, Michael Masucci and Nicola Pecile.

The rocket plane was released from its transport jet, VMS Eve, at an altitude of approximately 45,000 feet, after which the pilots ignited the vehicle's engine. Unity then soared into space at nearly three times the speed of sound, reaching an altitude of nearly 52.9 miles.

During the apex of the flight, the crew experienced a few minutes of weightlessness before the craft began its descent back to Earth. A live webcast by Virgin Galactic showcased the crew members in flight suits and sunglasses, witnessing the breathtaking view of Earth from space.

This flight comes two years after Richard Branson himself joined five other Virgin Galactic personnel for the first fully crewed test spaceflight of Unity. The completion of the test program took longer than expected due to an investigation into the company's deviation from assigned airspace during the July 2021 flight. However, a final crewed test flight was successfully conducted five weeks ago.

Virgin Galactic has already secured bookings from approximately 800 customers, with prices ranging from $250,000 to $450,000 per seat. The company plans to conduct monthly flights and envisions building a fleet large enough to accommodate 400 flights annually.

Ensuring a solid safety record is crucial for Virgin Galactic, especially considering the 2014 crash of an earlier prototype of the rocket plane that resulted in the death of one pilot. Passengers are required to sign a pre-flight waiver acknowledging the risks involved in space tourism.

The altitude at which true spaceflight is achieved has also become a point of contention. Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin has already flown several commercial passenger flights, has criticized Virgin Galactic for falling short of the internationally recognized Karman line, which marks the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and space at 62 miles. NASA and the U.S. Air Force define an astronaut as someone who has flown 50 miles or higher.

This groundbreaking flight marks a significant milestone for Virgin Galactic and the future of commercial space travel. As more companies enter the market, the race to offer extraordinary experiences beyond Earth's atmosphere continues to evolve.

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