Washington (AFP/APP): 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 curve of Earth while enjoying a few minutes of weightlessness at 52.9 miles (85.1 kilometers) above sea level.
“It was a beautiful ride,” Colonel Walter Villadei told reporters at a press conference, adding that his favorite moment was seeing the contrast between the black of space and the planet beneath.
The mission dubbed Galactic 01 began when a giant, twin-fuselage “mothership” aircraft took off from a runway at Spaceport America, New Mexico, around 8:30 am local time (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.
Fifty miles is considered the border of space by NASA and the US Air Force, though the internationally recognized boundary, known as the Karman Line, is 62 miles high.
Villadei was joined in the cabin by 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.
Unity later glided back safely to Earth, a livestream showed.
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.

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