With three Italian scientists on board, Richard Branson's space company Virgin Galactic has begun commercial operations into space. The VSS Unity spaceplane took off from a spaceport in the US state of New Mexico along with its mother plane, the VMS Eve, on Thursday, live images from Virgin Galactic showed.
At an altitude of about 14 kilometers, "VSS Unity" undocked from "VMS Eve" and started a short all-flight. Then the "VSS Unity" landed back at the spaceport. "A historic moment," commented British billionaire Branson via short message service Twitter.
In addition to scientists Walter Villadei, Angelo Landolfi and Pantaleone Carlucci from the Italian Air Force and Italy's National Science Council, several Virgin Galactic employees were also involved in various capacities on both aircraft. During the short flight, the scientists collected data for around a dozen experiments. They were also allowed to leave their seats for a short period of time, experienced weightlessness and unfurled an Italian flag.
The "VSS Unity" rose to an altitude of more than 80 kilometers. There is no binding international regulation as to where exactly space begins. The International Air Transport Association (FAI) and many other experts see 100 kilometers above the earth as the limit to space, other experts, organizations and governments see the limit as high as 80 kilometers. For comparison: The international space station ISS is about 400 kilometers high.
Tickets for around $450,000
Branson has been working towards the start of commercial flight operations with his company Virgin Galactic for around 20 years - also with repeated setbacks. The next commercial launch is already planned for early August, this time with "private astronauts" on board, the company said. According to the company, tickets for the tour, which lasts around one and a half hours, should cost around 450,000 dollars (about 400,000 euros). According to media reports, around 800 tickets have already been sold.
Branson's company isn't the first to offer affluent interested parties space travel. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin have already sent several passengers into space. Another competitor is Elon Musk's space company SpaceX, which has so far carried out two completely private missions to the International Space Station (ISS). In July 2021, Branson flew into space in his own spacecraft in a virtual race among billionaires ten days ahead of Bezos.