Virgin Galactic is preparing to launch its commercial space tourism service for the first time this morning, a highly anticipated debut that puts a lot on the line for the company.
The 90-minute mission, called Galactic 01, will begin sometime after 9 a.m. local time, with the company’s plane taking off from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The mission is part of a contract Virgin signed in 2019 to transport three officials from the Italian Air Force and Italy’s National Research Council (CRN) to suborbital space.
Virgin’s flight system differs from that of its competitor, Blue Origin, which uses a vertical rocket to launch a capsule into suborbital space. Instead, Virgin’s VSS Unity spacecraft reaches the lower limits of space by hitching a ride on a modified aircraft called VMS Eve — what Virgin often refers to as the “mothership.” Once VMS Eve reaches an altitude of about 15,000 feet, Unity starts its engine and detaches from the aircraft.
Should today’s mission be successful, Virgin plans to operate a second commercial flight in August, followed by monthly missions thereafter. The company reportedly has a backlog of 800 paying customers, the majority of whom paid $250,000 or less for a ticket, so such a cadence is not at all surprising given the demand.
But such ambitions depend on the outcome of this first mission and the company’s ability to prove that its suborbital spaceplane is indeed a ship worthy of customers. Notably, even as the outcome of this mission remains to be seen, Virgin has managed to rally investors – the company announced earlier this week that it had raised $300 million through a common stock offering, with plans to raise another $400 million in accessible via the same avenue.
The company will desperately need the money. While it reported that it had approximately $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 and transition from the VMS Eve carriers to a class of aircraft it calls Delta. Those aren’t expected to start flying crew until 2026, but Virgin’s plan is to have them fly more than 400 times a year.
But first today’s flight. The three members of the Italian Air Force and CNR will bring thirteen scientific payloads to suborbital space, experiments using microgravity and the effects of spaceflight on fluids, human tissue and other materials. Some payloads are self-contained and will be mounted in the cabin of the spacecraft.
The crew includes Mission Commander Colonel Walter Villadei, who began astronaut training at NASA through Axiom Space in 2021, and Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Landolfi, a physician representing the Italian Air Force. Also on board will be Pantaleone Carlucci, an engineer at 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 operate the VSS Unity spacecraft: Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile. The VMS Eve aircraft will be piloted by Kelly Latimer and Jameel Janjua.