The VSS Unity and the WhiteKnightTwo

Virgin Galactic brings Italy on board the first commercial flight

On June 29, 2023 Virgin Galactic launched its first commercial flight bringing Italy to do research at more than 80 km of altitude

Two years after the launch at which Sir Richard Branson took part himself, Virgin Galactic is finally back in action!

Unity 24 took off some weeks ago for an internal flight, but now it’s for real. Onboard no more Virgin employees but paying customers. This first commercial flight underlines particularly well the importance of opening the space also to private investors.

VSS Unity in flight. Credits: Virgin Galactic

No “simple” rich tourists (a ticket costs up to $ 400 thousand) were on board, but two Italian Air Force members (Col. Walter Villadei and Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi), Pantaleone Carlucci scientist at the Italian National Research Council (CNR) and the Virgin Galactic astronaut instructor Colin Bennett, all of them busy in research activities.

This was a historical flight not only for Virgin but also for Italy that, as already happened in the past, proves once again to play an important role in space exploration.

The Flight

The White Knight Two VMS Eve took off with the VSS Unity on June 29, at 14:30 UTC as scheduled from Spaceport America in New Mexico. After 59 minutes, at 15:28 UTC and at an altitude of around 45 thousand feet (13.700 meters), the VSS Unity detached from its mothership and ignited its hybrid rocket engine.

After another 65 seconds, the Virgin’s spacecraft finally shut off the engine. It was at this moment that the astronauts could unfasten their seatbelts to freely float for around 3 minutes and carry out the assigned experiments. The apogee reached during this flight was 85.1 km.

After the astronauts returned to their seats, they started the re-entry. Just like the glorious Space Shuttle, in this phase the SpaceShipTwo behaves like a glider, managing to land without the help of engines. The VSS Unity touched down at 15.43 UTC.


The Crew

The Galactic-01 Crew. Credits: Virgin Galactic
The Galactic-01 Crew. Credits: Virgin Galactic

Villadei was selected in 2008 by the Italian Air Force to be trained as an astronaut. Before today’s launch, he had never flown in space, but a 10-day Axiom mission on board the ISS is planned. During this first experience, he was wearing a special suit designed to provide comfort with breathable and fireproof-class fabrics that can withstand an acceleration of over 6G in addition to all the biomedical data it is able to collect.

Landolfi, who graduated in medicine and surgery, was trained as a crew surgeon. His role on board SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity was to conduct tests to measure cognitive performances in microgravity and to investigate the behavior of certain liquids in microgravity conditions.

Carlucci, an energy engineer and pilot, has worked at CNR for more than 8 years, focusing its interest on the optimization of payloads on aircraft platforms. In this mission, in the role of payload specialist, he wore a suit with various sensors to track body activities both during the flight and during the microgravity period.

Finally, Bennett, on his second suborbital flight with Virgin, after having trained the Italian crew members, helped with the experiments on board.

To make this flight even more Italian, one of the two pilots was Nicola Pecile, a former officer of the Italian Air Force who fly for Virgin Galactic since 2015, while Michael Masucci’s origins, the other pilot of the VSS Unity, date back to Naples.


The Experiments

As we mentioned previously, this was a research flight that, along with the ones of Blue Origin, opened the door to a more accessible way of doing science in space (up to now the only options were parabolic flight, cheap but short, and the ISS, expensive and with long waiting time).

On board, the crew carried out 12 experiments other than Villadei’s smart suit, going from fluid dynamics to developing sustainable materials in microgravity conditions. Among these, we have:

  •  ICE-SF: Italian Combustion Experiment – Suborbital Flight. It’s an autonomous payload that studies the combustion behaviour of liquid biofuel at high temperatures and pressures, allowing to improve the efficiency of technologies such as gas turbines (both for industrial and transport applications).
  • ECG Holter Monitoring: Carlucci wore a small electrocardiogram to measure heart rate and rhythm during the different phases of the flight. This is an important experiment that will allow researchers to understand what kind of risks passengers with cardiovascular disease will face.
  • Passenger’s Comfortability: Lt. Col. Landolfi performed an experiment to study cognitive and emotional changes induced by suborbital flight. This was done by performing tests on mental workload using a tablet, while two devices kept track of brain activity and galvanic skin response.


What’s Next?

Virgin Galactic announced to have another flight scheduled for early August, Galactic 02. This time, it will be a tourist one. With Blue Origin, SpaceX and now Virgin Galactic with at least a non-governmental flight active, the race for space tourism is coming alive!

The VSS Unity and the WhiteKnightTwo
The VSS Unity and the WhiteKnightTwo. Credits: Virgin Galactic
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Matteo Ferrarini

Matteo Ferrarini

B.Sc in aerospace engineering, now studying the world of renewable energy. Always looking at the stars, but sometimes you can find me underwater.

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