Virgin Galactic Completes Its First Commercial Mission

by Anthony Losanno
Virgin Galactic

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Virgin Galactic completed its first commercial mission, called Galactic 01, yesterday. This is a significant milestone for the space tourism company that Sir Richard Branson founded in 2004.

Virgin Galactic Crew

Galactic 01 reached an altitude of around 52.9 miles and traveled at a top speed of Mach 2.88 (2,210 miles per hour). It took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico and was flown by a pair of pilots along with four passengers. These included a Virgin Galactic trainer and its first trio of paid passengers. The three included: Colonel Walter Villadei and Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Landolfi of the Italian Air Force, Pantaleone Carlucci of the National Research Council of Italy.

They traveled along with 13 research payloads onboard. These looked to:

  • Measure cosmic radiation in the mesosphere.
  • Study the effect of microgravity on liquid mixing.
  • Test the design of a highly-innovative evaporator in a microgravity environment.
  • Measure the cabin air quality of suborbital flights.
  • Work memory exercises during flight to measure cognitive ability.
  • Study the combustion characteristics of renewable liquid biofuels and the behavior of complex fluids at high temperature.

After years of delays, the first flight was a success. The carrier plane gained altitude and then released a rocket-powered ship, called VSS Unity, around 40 minutes later. It soared into space at nearly Mach 3. While enjoying a few minutes of weightlessness, the officers unfurled Italy’s flag and looked out at the Earth. Unity later glided back to Earth, while excited viewers watched a live stream showed.

NASA and the US Air Force consider the border of space to be 50 miles, but the internationally recognized boundary, known as the Karman Line, is actually 62 miles high.

Sir Richard Branson flew on a test flight almost two years ago. Delays included a grounding from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the need to upgrade certain materials due to them not meeting minimum standards for strength margins. These setbacks are now behind Virgin Galactic and it is set to fly its second mission in August. If all goes well, the company will then fly once monthly to start to clear the backlog of paying customers. Virgin Galactic sold around 600 tickets between 2005 and 2014 for $200,000 to $250,000 each and an additional 200 since then for $450,000 a piece.

Anthony’s Take: Space is the final frontier and it seems like it’s becoming more accessible (to the very wealthy at least). It’s exciting to see progress, exploration, and advancement. I wonder how long it will be before there is a frequent flyer program.

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