Virgin Galactic launches first commercial spaceflight

Galactic 01 crew will perform science experiments during the suborbital flight

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic officially started its commercial spaceflight operations Thursday morning with the launch of a crew on a suborbital scientific research mission dubbed Galactic 01. 

The flight comes roughly a month after its last test flight soared to the edge of space and safely returned to New Mexico in late May and took roughly 1.2 hours.

The detachment of the spacecraft, VSS Unity, from the mothership carrying it, VMS Eve, occurred at roughly 11:30 a.m. ET, with the Unity ultimately climbing to 52.9 miles above the ground. It landed at Spaceport America in New Mexico before noon.

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CEO Michael Colglazier described the successful mission as "ushering in a new era of repeatable and reliable access to space for private passengers and researchers."

Thursday’s launch had been in the works for a long time. Upgrades and other factors led to delays in the company’s commercial efforts in the past.

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipT

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity returns to Earth after the mothership separates flying way above Spaceport America, near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico on July 11, 2021, on the way to the cosmos. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images)

The most recent test flight to have occurred other than May’s was one in July two years ago that flew billionaire Branson and several others. Virgin Galactic briefly faced a Federal Aviation Administration inquiry and grounding in connection to an airspace deviation in the July 2021 flight’s return to Earth, later getting cleared by the agency after making some changes, FOX Business previously reported.

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Galactic 01’s crew includes Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei and Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi, National Research Council of Italy engineer Pantaleone Carlucci and Virgin Galactic Astronaut Instructor Colin Bennett. Pilots involved in the mission are Mike Masucci, Nicola Pecile, Kelly Latimer and Jameel Janjua.

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The Italian crew members conducted "a series of suborbital science experiments," Virgin Galactic said.

Virgin Galactic Unity Flight

Virgin Galactic's Unity 25 in May 2023 and the company's first spaceflight Richard Branson's flight in July 2021. (Courtesy of Virgin Galactic / Fox News)

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The company, which competes with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, has identified later in 2023 as when it is targeting beginning regular spaceflights. That will happen after another private astronaut mission, Galactic 02, set for early August.

Virgin Galactic said it will do "post-flight inspections and analysis" ahead of the scheduled August flight.