Virgin Galactic has completed its first commercial flight into space.
Galactic 01 carried a crew of six on its roughly 90-minute flight to the edge of space.
A rocket was released from a plane at around 50,000ft, its engine then ignited and sent it in a near-vertical climb to around 50 miles above the Earth.
The crew included three members from Italy – two Italian air force colonels and an aerospace engineer from the National Research Council of Italy – as well as their Virgin Galactic instructor and the spaceplane’s two pilots.
The flight, from Spaceport America in New Mexico, was on a research mission and the crew were due to carry out 13 scientific research experiments.
The passengers unveiled an Italian flag to mark 100 years of the Italian air force after reaching a state of weightlessness before they returned to their seats ahead of the descent back towards Earth.
The spaceship VSS Unity landed safely back on the runway at around 4.45pm UK time on Thursday, as Virgin Galactic tweeted: “Welcome back to Earth, #Galactic01! Our pilots, crew and spaceship have landed smoothly.”
While the Galactic 01 is being billed as Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight, this time it does not have tourists on board – but an upcoming flight in August will carry paying customers.
Virgin Galactic said its first commercial spaceflight represents a new era in government-funded, commercial human-tended research missions.
The company has been working for years to send paying passengers on short space trips and in 2021 finally won the federal government’s approval and completed its final test fight in May.
The spaceflight collected data through wearable payloads and sensors, and autonomous payloads mounted in the cabin.
The launch comes a month after Sir Richard’s Virgin Orbit announced it was ceasing operations after a mission failure in the UK.
If all goes smoothly, Virgin Galactic says it will fly again in early August, with monthly flights thereafter.
The company said it has already booked a backlog of some 800 customers, charging from $250,000 to $450,000 per seat.