WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic plans to conduct its first fully commercial flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane on June 29, carrying three Italians who will conduct more than a dozen experiments.
Virgin Galactic announced June 26 the date for its “Galactic 01” mission, flying from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company had previously disclosed a window of June 27 to 30 for the flight.
The flight is considered the first fully commercial mission by Virgin Galactic, although the company did generate small amounts of revenue by flying research payloads on earlier test flights.
“Galactic 01 is our first commercial spaceflight and we’re honored to have been selected by the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council to support their first space research mission,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in a statement. “Virgin Galactic’s research missions will usher in a new era of repeatable and reliable access to space for government and research institutions for years to come.”
The June 29 flight, called Virtute 1 by the Italian government, features three Italian payload specialists, commanded by Walter Villadei, a colonel in the Italian Air Force. He previously trained with NASA and Axiom Space for a commercial orbital spaceflight, becoming the backup pilot for the Ax-2 mission to the International Space Station that flew in May.
Joining Villadei are Angelo Landolfi, an Italian Air Force lieutenant colonel and physician, and Pantaleone Carlucci, a researcher with Italy’s National Research Council. The three will carry out 13 experiments before, during and after the flight, measuring cosmic radiation, testing the effects of microgravity on fluids and combustion, and collecting medical data. Villadei will wear a “smart flight suit” that will gather biomedical data while testing a suit design intended to operate at up to 6 Gs.
“We are flying payloads from multiple disciplines in one mission and are utilizing the entire flight profile to collect invaluable data,” Villadei said in a statement.
Joining the Italians in the crew cabin is Colin Bennett, a Virgin Galactic astronaut instructor who will assess the research flight experience. He flew on the SpaceShipTwo mission in July 2021 that carried company founder Richard Branson. The overall mission will be commanded by Virgin Galactic’s Mike Masucci, making his fourth flight. Nicola Pecile, a former Italian Air Force pilot who now works for Virgin, will be the pilot.
Virgin Galactic signed a contract with the Italian Air Force for the mission in October 2019, intending at the time to fly it as soon as late 2020 or early 2021. After Branson’s flight, Virgin Galactic planned to conduct the flight in the fall of 2021 before beginning a maintenance period for both SpaceShipTwo and its mothership aircraft, VMS Eve. However, the company postponed the flight in October 2021, electing to carry out the maintenance first.
Virgin resumed flights of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VMS Unity, earlier this year. That included a May 25 suborbital test flight that was the first time Unity went to space since Branson’s flight. That flight carried Virgin Galactic employees as payload specialists.
The company sees the flight as a way to highlight its ability to carry out research as an alternative market to space tourism. “This flight will showcase our distinctive spaceflight system, which allows researchers to fly with their experiments, and our capacity to offer regular access to space for the science and technology community,” said Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, in a statement.
The bulk of Virgin Galactic’s business, though, will come from private astronauts paying up to $450,000 a ticket for the flight. The company has about 800 customers for those flights. Virgin said June 15 its first flight carrying private astronauts, Galactic 02, is tentatively scheduled for early August, with subsequent flights planned on a monthly basis.
Many of those customers may end up flying on the company’s future Delta class of spaceplanes, designed for much higher flight rates. With the company’s negligible revenue to date and high operating losses, Virgin Galactic will need to raise substantial funding to develop the Delta-class vehicles.
In a June 22 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Virgin Galactic said it had completed a sale of $300 million of stock it announced in August 2022. It also announced plans to sell an additional $400 million of stock, working with Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.
The funds, Virgin stated, will be used “for development of its spaceship fleet and infrastructure to scale its commercial operations, and for general corporate purposes.”
Shares in Virgin Galactic, traded on the New York Stock Exchange, fell 18.4% June 23, effectively giving up gains since the company announced its commercial spaceflight plans June 15.