After building to this point for over a decade, Virgin Galactic has completed its first commercial flight. After launching aboard the mothership VMS Eve, the spaceship VSS Unity reached an altitude of around 52 miles, or the edge of space. It landed nearly 15 minutes later at the company's Spaceport America base near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, completing the Galactic 01 research mission.
The company's first client was the Italian government, which had the aim of conducting microgravity research. Aboard were Air Force colonel Walter Villadei, Air Force lieutenant and flight surgeon Colonel Angelo Landolfi, and Pantaleone Carlucci, a research council member acting as flight engineer and payload specialist. Unity was piloted by retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Michael Masucci and Nicola Pecile, with Virgin Galactic trainer Colin Bennett also on board.
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) June 29, 2023
Prior to the commercial flight, Virgin Galactic had conducted five crewed spaceflights in total, the last in late May with four employees aboard. However, the company has gone through a lot of pain getting to that point.
After several successful tests of its SpaceShipTwo spaceplane aboard the mothership WhiteKnightTwo back in 2013, Virgin Galactic's VSS Enterprise crashed in 2014, killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot. Flight testing resumed with VSS Unity's glide test back in 2016, and the ship finally reached space in 2018.
The company's first fully crewed spaceflight took place in 2021, when Unity hit an altitude of 53.4 miles with founder Richard Branson on board. However, commercial service was delayed multiple times for different reasons, most recently due to issues in upgrading the mothership VMS Eve.
From a financial perspective, the launch was crucial for Virgin Galactic. With no paying customers until now, the company has lost money for years, including more than $500 million in 2022 alone. It advertises seats at $450,000 per ticket, and previously set a goal of having 1,000 reservations prior to its first commercial launch.
Virgin Galactic's main rival in the suborbital tourism space race is Blue Origin, which uses a conventional rocket rather than an airplane mothership. Blue Origin CEO (and Amazon founder) Jeff Bezos has said that Virgin Galactic fails to deliver a true spaceflight experience, compared to Blue Origin's system that tops 62 miles in altitude, past the Kármán line often used to mark the beginning of space. Others consider 50 miles the threshold.
Blue Origin has had problems of its own. Last year, one of its New Shepard rockets suffered from a booster failure about a minute after takeoff, forcing the company to deploy its escape system for the uncrewed capsule, which worked as designed.
Another rival, SpaceX, offers a far different experience — its Falcon 1 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule take customers into a true orbit. SpaceX has even flown a private crew to the International Space Station on a 10-day mission, reportedly for a $55 million fee.