Today marks a monumental day for Virgin Galactic as they prepare to launch their first commercial space tourism service. A long-anticipated and crucial event, the launch carries hefty expectations and is viewed as a significant milestone for the company.
Dubbed the Galactic 01, the 90-minute mission is scheduled to kick off after 9:00 AM local time. The take-off site is none other than Spaceport America in New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft will embark on a journey as part of a contract inked in 2019. This mission will see three Italian Air Force and National Research Council of Italy (CRN) officials propelled into the suborbital realm of space.
Distinct from the methodology of its rival, Blue Origin, which utilizes a vertical rocket for propelling a capsule to suborbital space, Virgin Galactic opts for an alternate approach. The company’s VSS Unity spacecraft ascends to the edge of space aboard a specially modified aircraft, known as the VMS Eve, often referred to as the “mothership” by Virgin. Unity ignites its engine and separates from the mothership once an altitude of approximately 50,000 feet is reached.
Success today would mark the beginning of Virgin Galactic’s commercial space tourism operations, with plans to conduct a subsequent flight in August, followed by regular monthly missions. Considering the company reportedly has a backlog of 800 enthusiastic customers ready to explore the final frontier, this schedule seems highly reasonable.
However, these ambitious plans hinge on the success of today’s inaugural flight and on Virgin Galactic’s ability to affirm that its suborbital spaceplane is indeed a suitable and safe vehicle for its customers. Notably, despite the uncertainty surrounding this mission, Virgin Galactic’s ability to rally investors has not been impeded. Earlier this week, they announced a successful raise of $300 million through a common stock offering, with plans to garner an additional $400 million via the same method.
This cash influx will serve as an integral financial backbone for Virgin Galactic’s future ventures. With a hefty $874 million reported in cash and securities as of this year’s first quarter, the company has grand, capital-intensive plans for upgrading its aircraft fleet. The transition from the current VMS Eve carriers to a new class of planes, referred to as Delta, is on the cards. While these new aircraft aren’t expected to begin crewed flights until 2026, Virgin Galactic’s ambition is to have them flying as much as 400 times per year.
But all eyes are on today’s journey. The trio from the Italian Air Force and CNR will carry thirteen scientific payloads into suborbital space. These are experiments designed to study microgravity and the effects of spaceflight on various materials, including liquids and human tissue. The crew comprises mission commander Colonel Walter Villadei, Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Landolfi, a physician, Pantaleone Carlucci, an engineer with CNR, and Colin Bennett, Virgin’s lead astronaut instructor.
At the helm of VSS Unity are pilots Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile, while Kelly Latimer and Jameel Janjua will pilot the VMS Eve aircraft. As we await the historic moment of lift-off, the world watches with bated breath, ready to witness a new era in space tourism unfold.