800 Tickets Sold for Virgin Galactic's Historic First Journey to the Edge of Space

800 Tickets Sold for Virgin Galactic's Historic First Journey to the Edge of Space
Cover Image Source: YouTube/Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic, the space exploration venture founded by Richard Branson, achieved a significant milestone as it successfully launched its first commercial flight which will take customers to the edge of space. This achievement comes after two decades of dedicated efforts to make commercial space travel a reality. Unlike its competitor, Blue Origin which primarily focuses on high-profile passengers, Virgin Galactic's inaugural flight had Italian Air Force-funded passengers, reported CNN.

Image Source: Virgin Galactic
Image Source: Virgin Galactic

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The first commercial flight was a research-focused mission in collaboration with the Italian Air Force. The passengers included Colonel Walter Villadei, who is scheduled to travel to orbit on a future paid SpaceX mission, and Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Landolfi, a physician trained as a crew surgeon for Russian cosmonauts. Additionally, on board were Pantaleone Carlucci from Italy's National Research Council and Colin Bennett, a Virgin Galactic astronaut instructor who provided valuable insights for future improvements to Virgin Galactic's rocket-powered space plane, VSS Unity, per CNN Travel.

 

The journey commenced at Virgin Galactic's spaceport in New Mexico, where the passengers boarded VSS Unity, attached beneath the wing of the twin-fuselage mothership, VMS Eve. Similar to an airplane, VMS Eve took off from the runway and ascended to an altitude of over 40,000 feet (12,192 meters). Once at the designated altitude, VMS Eve released VSS Unity, which ignited its rocket engine, propelling it upward toward the stars. Reaching an altitude of more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the Earth's surface, the space plane entered the United States government-defined boundary of outer space. It experienced supersonic speeds and moments of weightlessness before gliding back to the spaceport for a runway landing. The entire journey lasted about an hour and a half.

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Image Source: Virgin Galactic
Image Source: Virgin Galactic

 

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The moments of weightlessness experienced during the flight were of particular interest to researchers. Suborbital missions, such as those conducted by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, offer a cost-effective means for conducting experiments in a weightless environment. Scientists can gain a better understanding of how various materials behave in space, conduct experiments on acceleration's impact on heart rates, measure cosmic radiation in the upper atmosphere, and examine the behavior of biofuels under different pressures in microgravity. These suborbital research missions provide valuable insights at a fraction of the cost compared to launching experiments to the International Space Station.

Richard Branson. Getty Images for Virgin Atlantic | Photo by JP Yim
Richard Branson. Getty Images for Virgin Atlantic | Photo by JP Yim

 

The successful commercial flight marked a significant step forward for Virgin Galactic, which was established in the early 2000s by Richard Branson. Despite initial plans to begin flying customers as early as 2008, the company faced numerous challenges in developing an upgraded version of the space plane for commercial service. Over the years, Virgin Galactic has encountered financial losses while striving to complete test flights and cater to customers who had purchased tickets (some of them had bought tickets more than a decade ago). Tickets cost $450,000 and the Virgin Galactic website claims there is high demand among customers, reported The Daily Mail.


 
 
 
 
 
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The launch of Virgin Galactic's commercial flight coincides with increased awareness of the risks associated with high-stake tourism endeavors. The recent tragic incident involving an OceanGate Expeditions submersible bound for the Titanic wreckage underscores the potential dangers involved in such adventures. Similarly, space tourism carries inherent risks, as exemplified by previous accidents involving Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. Many who have ventured on oceanic expeditions have also purchased tickets to space, including the late Hamish Harding, a 2022 Blue Origin passenger who died in the OceanGate submersible.

The commercial space industry in the United States largely operates under a self-regulated framework. Congress has imposed a moratorium on new regulations for private human spaceflight, allowing space companies to innovate and develop technologies without excessive regulatory burdens. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plays a role in licensing commercial rocket launches primarily focusing on ensuring the safety of bystanders and nearby property rather than passengers. Currently, paying customers are required to sign "informed consent" documents acknowledging the risks associated with space travel.

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