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Virgin Galactic Touches Space

Walter Villadei, a colonel and space engineer in the Italian Air Force, and Italian flight engineer Pantaleone Carlucci walk to the rocket plane operated by Virgin Galactic at the Spaceport America facility, in Truth or Consequences, N.M., June 29, 2023.

WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic successfully flew its first paying customers to the final frontier Thursday, a long-awaited achievement that puts it back on track in the emerging private spaceflight sector.

Italian Air Force officers unfurled their nation's flag and peered out windows at the Earth's curvature while enjoying a few minutes of weightlessness at 85km above sea level.

Inside the spaceplane's cabin were Colonel Walter Villadei and Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Landolfi of the Italian Air Force, Pantaleone Carlucci of the National Research Council of Italy, and Colin Bennett of Virgin Galactic.

There were also two pilots on the spaceplane, and two on the carrier plane.

"Welcome to space, astronauts," Virgin Galactic's Sirisha Bandla said in a livestream.

The mission dubbed Galactic 01 began when a giant, twin-fuselage "mothership" aircraft took off from a runway at Spaceport America, New Mexico, around 1430 GMT.

The carrier plane gained high altitude, then around 40 minutes later released a rocket-powered plane, called VSS Unity, which soared into space at nearly Mach 3.

85km is considered the border of space by NASA and the US Air Force, though the internationally recognized boundary, known as the Karman Line, is 99.77km up.

The stream showed Unity later gliding back safely to Earth.

The flight came almost two years after Virgin Galactic's founder Richard Branson flew to space in a test flight meant to usher in a new era of lucrative space tourism.

But the company subsequently faced setbacks, including a brief grounding by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which found the Branson flight deviated from its assigned airspace and Virgin Galactic did not communicate the "mishap" as required.

Later, lab testing revealed certain materials used in its vehicles had fallen below required strength margins, necessitating upgrades to the fleet.

The company ended its spaceflight pause with a successful test in May, paving the way for Thursday's mission. In total, it ran five test flights before Thursday's commercial flight.

The Galactic 01 crew were tasked with conducting 13 supervised and autonomous experiments, and collecting data on their suits and sensors in the cabin.

Experiments included measuring radiation levels in the under-studied mesosphere, and how certain liquids and solids mix in microgravity.

Founded in 2004, Virgin Galactic has sold around 800 tickets for seats on future commercial flights - 600 between 2005 and 2014 for $200,000 to $250,000, and 200 since then for $450,000 each.

Movie stars and celebrities were among the first to snap up seats, but the company's program suffered a disaster in 2014 when a spaceplane on a test flight broke apart midair, killing the copilot and seriously injuring the pilot.

The company is now looking to the future. The next mission, Galactic 02, is set for August, and then it hopes to make monthly space hops after that.