Virgin Galactic is gearing up to launch its commercial space tourism service for the first time this morning, a long-awaited debut that puts much on the line for the company.
The 90-minute mission, called Galactic 01, will commence sometime after 9:00 AM local time, with the company’s aircraft taking off from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The mission is part of a contract Virgin signed back in 2019 to carry three Italian Air Force and National Research Council of Italy (CRN) officials to suborbital space.
Virgin’s flight system is different from that of its competitor, Blue Origin, which uses a vertical rocket to launch a capsule to suborbital space. Instead, Virgin’s VSS Unity spacecraft reaches the lower bounds of space by hitching a ride on a customized aircraft called VMS Eve – what Virgin often refers to as the “mothership.” Once VMS Eve reaches an altitude around 50,000 feet, Unity fires up its engine and detaches from the plane.
Should today’s mission be successful, Virgin plans to conduct a second commercial flight in August, followed by monthly missions after that. The company reportedly has a backlog of 800 paying customers, the majority of which paid $250,000 or less for a ticket, so such a cadence isn’t at all surprising given demand.
But such ambitions depend upon the outcome of this first mission, and the ability of the company to prove that its suborbital spaceplane is indeed a worthy vessel for customers. Notably, even as the outcome of this mission remains to be seen, Virgin has been able to rally investors – the company announced earlier this week that it had raised $300 million via a common stock offering, with plans to raise another $400 million through the same avenue.
The company will need the money. While it reported having around $874 million in cash and securities on-hand at the end of the first quarter of this year, Virgin has capital-intensive plans to upgrade its fleet of aircraft, transitioning from the VMS Eve carriers to a class of planes it calls Delta. Those aren’t anticipated to start flying crew until 2026, but Virgin’s plan is to fly them upwards of 400 times per year.
But first, today’s flight. The three members of the Italian Air Force and CNR will carry thirteen scientific payloads to suborbital space, experiments that exploit microgravity and the effects of spaceflight on liquids, human tissue, and other materials. Some of the payloads are autonomous and will be mounted in the cabin of the spacecraft.
The crew includes mission commander Colonel Walter Villadei, who started astronaut training at NASA via Axiom Space in 2021 and Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Landolfi, a physician, representing the Italian Air Force. Also aboard will be Pantaleone Carlucci, an engineer with CNR, and Colin Bennett, Virgin’s lead astronaut instructor. Bennett flew with Virgin owner Richard Branson on the company’s first crewed mission in July 2021.
In addition to the crew, two pilots will fly the VSS Unity spacecraft: Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile. The VMS Eve aircraft will be piloted by Kelly Latimer and Jameel Janjua.