Virgin Galactic's space tourism project set for take-off with monthly flights planned

About 800 tickets have been sold over the past decade for the chance to experience four minutes of weightlessness

Powered by automated translation

Sir Richard Branson's space tourism venture Virgin Galactic is set to begin commercial operations, with the first flight scheduled for take-off on June 27.

Shares in the company, which sends paying passengers on suborbital flights, surged after it made the announcement on Friday.

More than 800 Virgin Galactic ticket holders around the world are waiting for a turn on the spaceplane, which flies 89km above the New Mexico desert.

Three researchers from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council of Italy will fly on the first flight, with a launch window available until June 30.

“Virgin Galactic's team and vehicles are ready to fly the company's first customers to space, having successfully completed the Unity 25 space flight and subsequent routine analysis and vehicle inspections,” the company said in a statement.

The Italian crew will conduct experiments in the microgravity environment of space.

The flight, called Galactic 01, comes two years after Sir Richard and a crew of five flew on the first fully crewed flight by Virgin Galactic on July 11, 2021.

Virgin Galactic completes final test flight

Virgin Galactic completes final test flight

He beat billionaire Jeff Bezos, who did not fly on the first fully crewed Blue Origin space tourism flight until nine days later.

But Blue Origin quickly emerged as the leading space tourism company, having already flown 31 people into sub-orbit so far.

US authorities grounded Virgin Galactic spaceplanes shortly after the first crewed flight for deviating from its flight path, causing several delays in starting commercial operations.

There was also a debate on which company was actually going into space, with Virgin Galactic reportedly only reaching an altitude of 89km and Blue Origin flying 106km.

It is widely accepted that “space begins” at 100km, called the Karman line – the invisible boundary between Earth's atmosphere and the beginning of space.

Virgin Galactic launches passengers from a horizontal spaceport, with a carrier jet that releases the VSS Unity spaceplane at an altitude of about 15,240 metres, which then climbs to the edge of space.

The crew will then experience about four minutes of weightlessness.

The company has said the next commercial flight, Galactic 02, will take place in August and will involve private customers who purchased tickets years ago, with plans for a monthly flight after that.

About 800 tickets have been sold over the past decade, with the initial batch going for $200,000 each. Tickets now cost $450,000 per person.

Two passengers waiting to fly on the spaceplane previously spoke to The National of their excitement.

Namira Salim, a Dubai resident, paid $200,000 to be one of the first passengers aboard the space tourist flights – and now her 19-year wait could finally be over.

“It is very exciting,” she told The National when Sir Richard was launched into space in 2021.

“It has been my childhood dream to go to space and I have always been fascinated by the stars.

“I am not going to space just yet but I will be there to see him off. It is a moment we have been waiting for, for a very long time.”

Zainab Azim, a Pakistani-Canadian student, was given a Virgin Galactic ticket by her parents when she turned 11.

Now 20, she is legally eligible to fly on a spacecraft using her $250,000 ticket and is on the way to becoming the first hijab-wearing space tourist.

“I am excited, but I know my mum is already scared and we don’t even have a date for it yet,” said Ms Azim, who is currently a university student in Toronto, pursuing a double major in neuroscience and public policy and a minor in psychology and astrophysics.

“I’m her only daughter and I have two brothers younger than me, so I do understand her fear. My dad is also excited, but not more excited than me.”

Updated: June 16, 2023, 8:11 AM