Virgin Galactic launched its first commercial flight into space on Thursday.
The spaceflight, dubbed the Galactic 01 by Sir Richard Branson’s private space tourism company, set off from Spaceport America in New Mexico at 4pm UK time.
Once the carrier aircraft reached around 50,000ft, the rocket was released from underneath and sent in a near-vertical climb to around 50 miles above Earth.
But what is a commercial spaceflight? What happens on board? And what does this mean for the future of space tourism?
What is a commercial spaceflight?
Put simply, it’s a flight into space that people pay for.
While Galactic 01 was being billed as Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight, it did not have tourists on board.
Instead, crew members embarked on a scientific research mission.
But when Galactic 02 takes off in August, it will carry paying customers.
What happened on the flight?
Galactic 01 carried three crew members from the Italian Air Force and National Research Council of Italy along with an astronaut instructor from Virgin Galactic.
The 90-minute flight was suborbital, which means it got to the edge of space without going into orbit.
The research crew conducted 13 experiments examining biomedicine thermo-fluid dynamics and microgravity during the flight.
How does the launch work?
The spaceplane is launched in mid-air from a carrier plane at an altitude of about 9.4 miles (15km).
Its rocket then fires the craft and its crew into sub-orbital space at least 50 miles (80km) above Earth.
Passengers experience five minutes of weightlessness.
How much are tourist tickets?
A ticket for a 90-minute trip to space will set you back $450,000 (£356,000).
According to Virgin Galactic, it’s a price people are willing to pay. “Demand is high”, the company’s website says, with several hundred customers already in line to fly.
What does this mean for the future of space tourism?
After the first tourist flight launches in August, Virgin Galactic flights are expected to take place every month.
The company is hoping to expand its flight schedule during the first years of operation.
Have tourists gone into space before?
American Dennis Tito was the first space tourist in 2001, paying Russia $20m (£16m) to fly to the International Space Station, where he spent a week.
Eight more space tourists travelled on Russian spaceflights between 2001 and 2009.
In 2022, three multimillionaire businessmen flew to the International Space Station on SpaceX‘s first private charter flight to the orbiting lab. They each paid $55m (£42m) for the rocket ride and accommodation.
Russia has been hosting visitors at the space station for decades. In 2021, a Russian movie crew was flown up, followed by a Japanese fashion tycoon and his assistant.
Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin completed its first human flight in 2021 with four private citizens onboard, including Bezos, his younger brother Mark, an 18-year-old and an 82-year-old.
Thursday’s commercial launch of the Virgin Galactic spaceflight follows a successful test flight with Sir Richard Branson on board in 2021.