Virgin Italy signing
Virgin Galactic President Mike Moses and Gen. Stefano Cont, the defense and defense cooperation attaché at the Italian Embassy, sign a contract Oct. 2 for a SpaceShipTwo flight for the Italian Air Force. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic signed a contract Oct. 2 with the Italian Air Force to fly a set of research payloads, and three people, on a future SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceflight.

In a ceremony at the Italian Embassy here, representatives of the Italian and U.S. governments, along with Virgin Galactic executives, announced the contract for the dedicated SpaceShipTwo flight, scheduled to take place no sooner than 2020 from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

“This is a very important moment for Italy and for the air force, but it is not something coming out of the blue,” said Gen. Stefano Cont, the defense and defense cooperation attaché at the embassy, at the event. “The Italian Air Force has, in its DNA, a strong commitment to technological innovation.”

The purpose of the flight, he said, is to “explore and get familiar, and possibly to operate, in that area where the Virgin flight will be going, in suborbital.” The Italian Air Force plans to work with the Italian space agency ASI and research organization CNR, as well as universities, on the research payloads that will go on the flight.

In addition to the payloads, the flight will include three people who will oversee the payloads and perform their own research. Cont said one of them will be a test pilot or astronaut to better understand the suborbital flight environment. The second will be a flight surgeon or doctor with a background in aerospace medicine who will study the effects of the brief exposure of microgravity on themselves during the flight. The third person will be a civilian researcher monitoring the other experiments on the flight.

Neither the Italian Air Force nor Virgin Galactic were specific about when the flight would take place. Mike Moses, president of Virgin Galactic, said the flight likely would be “some time as early as towards the end of next year, or a little bit after that, potentially.” That schedule will depend on both the manifest of SpaceShipTwo flights and when the Italian payloads and crew are ready.

While the flight will take place from New Mexico, there is interest in hosting future SpaceShipTwo flights in Italy. In July 2018, Virgin Galactic announced a “framework agreement” with Italian companies Altec and Sitael, working in cooperation with Italian government agencies, to establish SpaceShipTwo operations at the Taranto-Grottaglie Airport. The agreement set no date for when those flights would begin.

The contract covers only one flight, but Moses said it could open the door for additional such flights from either the U.S. or Italy. “We certainly support the idea of potentially flying from a spaceport based in Italy,” he said.

The agreement marks the first time that a government agency has contracted to fly human-tended payloads on a commercial suborbital vehicle. NASA’s Flight Opportunities program has already flown experiments on both SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicles, but those experiments are operated from the ground with no intervention from anyone on board. NASA has, in the past, considered the possibility of funding researchers who would fly with their suborbital payloads through Flight Opportunities but has yet to fly any.

The contract is the latest in a series of developments for Virgin Galactic as it shifts from testing to operations. VSS Unity, the one SpaceShipTwo vehicle currently in service, last flew in February. The company is working to refit the interior of VSS Unity’s cabin for commercial flights, as well as some other changes, at the company’s Mojave, California, facilities, and Moses said that it should “shortly” be ready to move to Spaceport America to resume test flights, with commercial service to begin some time next year.

Virgin Galactic is building the next two SpaceShipTwo vehicles in Mojave. The company announced Sept. 16 that it mated the wings and fuselage sections of one of those vehicles, putting the vehicle on track for completion next year. The other SpaceShipTwo under construction should be completed in 2021, according to an investor presentation filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Sept. 25.

In July, Virgin Galactic announced its intent to merge with Social Capital Hedosophia (SCH), a publicly traded special-purpose acquisition company, a deal that would value the company at $1.5 billion and provide it with an estimated $450 million to fund operations and growth. SCH shareholders voted Sept. 9 to extend the deadline by which it must close the Virgin Galactic deal by three months, to Dec. 18. The Sept. 25 investor presentation stated that the companies expect the deal to close in the fourth quarter.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...