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Virgin Galactic to send Italian researchers to space, then regular commercial flights

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — Virgin Galactic announced on Thursday that monthly commercial flights to the edge of space will begin for ticket-holders in August, following a research flight planned for the end of June.

File photo shows Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity departing Mojave Air & Space Port in Mojave, California, on February 13, 2020. PHOTO: AP

The space tourism company will be taking up a team of specialists with the Italian Air Force and the National Research Centre of Italy to conduct microgravity research. The window for that research flight will begin June 27 and span the next three days, with timing depending on the weather.

After that, those who have been waiting more than a decade for their ride aboard Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered space plane are expected to get their chance. The company said the first of those flights will begin in early August, with monthly flights following that.

“This next exciting chapter for Virgin Galactic has been driven by innovation, determination and a commitment to delivering an unparalleled and truly transformative customer experience,” CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement.

Virgin Galactic has been working for years to send paying passengers on short space trips and in 2021 finally won the federal government’s approval. The company completed its final test fight in May.

After reaching an altitude of nearly 50,000 feet (15,000 metres), Virgin Galactic’s space plane is released from a carrier aircraft and drops for a moment before igniting its rocket motor. The plane shuts off once it reaches space, providing passengers with silence, weightlessness and an aerial view of Earth. The rocket ship then glides back to the runway at Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert.

Virgin Galactic has sold about 800 tickets over the past decade, with the initial batch going for USD200,000 each. Tickets now cost USD450,000 per person.

The company said early fliers have already received their seat assignments.

The highest profile test flight came in July 2021 when Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson beat fellow billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and rocket company Blue Origin into space. Bezos ended up flying nine days later from West Texas, and Blue Origin has since launched several passenger trips.