First customers fly to space for up to $450,000 per ticket

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Virgin becomes the latest commercial enterprise, along with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and fellow billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX, catering to wealthy customers

Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight has reached space, a live stream provided by the company showed. “Welcome to space, astronauts,” Virgin Galactic’s Sirisha Bandla said, as the company’s first paying customers — members of the Italian Air Force — unfurled their national flag while enjoying a few minutes of weightlessness in a rocket-powered space plane.

A three-man crew from Italy soared more than 50 miles (80 km) above the New Mexico desert aboard a Virgin Galactic rocket plane, the company’s first flight of paying customers to the edge of space since British billionaire Richard Branson founded the venture in 2004.

Virgin becomes the latest commercial enterprise, along with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and fellow billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX, catering to wealthy customers willing to pay large sums of money to experience the exhilaration of supersonic rocket speed, microgravity and the spectacle of the Earth’s curvature from space.

The mission of the Italian team was billed as a scientific one, with the three men planning to collect biometric data, measure cognitive performance and record how certain liquids and solids mix in microgravity conditions.

For Italian Air Force Colonel Walter Villadei the flight was also part of his astronaut training for a future mission to the International Space Station.

Joining him were two Italian colleagues – Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Landolfi, a physician and flight surgeon, and Pantaleone Carlucci, a research council member acting as a flight engineer and payload specialist.

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Rounding out the crew was their Virgin Galactic trainer, Colin Bennett, the company’s lead “astronaut instructor,” and Unity’s two pilots, Michael Masucci and Nicola Pecile.

The gleaming white rocket plane was borne attached to the underside of its transport jet, VMS Eve, as the carrier plane took off from Spaceport America near the New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences.

Reaching its launch-altitude point of roughly 45,000 feet (8.5 miles/13.68 km) above the ground, Unity was then released from the mothership and fell away as the pilots ignited the vehicle’s engine to send the rocket plane streaking in a near-vertical climb at about three times the speed of sound to the blackness of space.

Virgin Galactic said Unity topped out its flight at an altitude of nearly 52.9 miles (85.1 km).

At the apex of the flight, with the rocket shut down, the crew then experienced a few minutes of weightlessness before the craft shifted into re-entry mode and began its gliding descent back to Earth.

A Virgin Galactic webcast showed live footage of crew members strapped into their seats in flight suits and sunglasses as they neared the height of their voyage, then enjoying the thrill of microgravity as Villadei unveiled an Italian flag in the cabin.