Would you go? Virgin Galactic launches first commercial spaceflight after setbacks, delays

June 30, 2023

It’s showtime for Virgin Galactic, with its first commercial spacecraft taking off to the very edge of space on Thursday morning, July 29 from the Spaceport America facility in New Mexico, reports The Wall Street Journal.

But is this a case of poor timing, just ten days after OceanGate’s Titan submersible imploded on a deep-sea descent to the site of the Titanic wreck, roughly 900 miles off the coast of Cape Cod? The recent dive—during which four paying customers and OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush lost their lives—has left questions surrounding commercial tourism, both under water and in outer space.

The spaceflight company founded by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson almost two decades ago launched its effort Thursday to take paying customers for the first time to just below the Kármán line—defined as the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

The rocket-powered Galactic 01 spacecraft was released from a carrier plane around 11:30 a.m. (EDT) at an altitude of around 50,000 feet, set to take the vehicle to a height of around 275,000 feet.

The mission began around 10:30 a.m. (EDT), when the company’s carrier plane took off from the Spaceport America facility in New Mexico. Col. Walter Villadei and Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi from the Italian Air Force, and Pantaleone Carlucci, an engineer with the National Research Council of Italy, are traveling on the spacecraft, along with a Virgin Galactic astronaut. The Italian customers plan to oversee experiments during the flight related to radiation, materials science, and other topics, the company said.

The crew is expected to experience several minutes of weightlessness, with the trip lasting about 90 minutes from takeoff of the carrier plane to the spacecraft’s landing.

The flight aims to mark a shift from Virgin Galactic’s yearslong development and testing phase to an era where the company regularly operates revenue-generating flights to suborbital space for $450,000 a seat. Virgin Galactic has said it is planning for its second commercial trip in August and to begin flying at a monthly rate after that.

The company made a splash when it took Branson and other staffers on a spaceflight about two years ago—drawing global attention and attracting interest in the nascent market of private human space missions.

Virgin Galactic hunkered down after that, dealing with a regulatory review prompted by how its spacecraft returned to ground during that trip and focusing on preparing its single carrier plane and sole spacecraft for regular service. Executives also took steps to expand its fleet; last year, the company said it would open a new factory in Arizona where staff would assemble future spacecraft and hired a Boeing subsidiary to build it two additional carrier planes.

Virgin Galactic didn’t return to flight until this April, when it conducted a test operation that didn’t attempt to reach space. In May, Virgin Galactic reached space with a crew of staff members on the spacecraft—the first time it had done so since it took Branson and his other crew members up.

The company isn’t the only one offering private space trips. Blue Origin, the space company backed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, has a suborbital spaceflight division.

Blue Origin has completed six human flights using the company’s New Shepard rocket, including one that transported Bezos and three others to space shortly after Branson’s Virgin Galactic flight in 2021. It hasn’t flown since September, when an engine nozzle failed during an uncrewed research mission, cutting the flight short.

A Blue Origin spokesperson said the company expected to return to flight this year.

SpaceX, the rocket and satellite company led by Elon Musk, flew a crew of private astronauts on a three-day orbital trip in September 2021. It also has twice taken private astronauts, or those sponsored by governments, to the International Space Station. Those two trips were organized by Axiom Space, a company that is also developing its own orbiting facility and space suits for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The Virgin Galactic spaceflight landed successfully at 12:20 p.m. (EDT) on June 29—completing the company’s first commercial excursion. The question remains whether, following the implosion of the OceanGate submersible, space and ocean tourism will continue to be in demand.

Research contact: @WSJ