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Virgin Galactic launches 2 pilots, 4 passengers to the edge of space and back

Virgin Galactic launches space tourism flight
Watch: Virgin Galactic launches first space tourism flight 19:56

Two pilots, a Turkish research astronaut and three private citizens rocketed to space and back Saturday aboard Virgin Galactic's Unity spaceplane, enjoying spectacular views of Earth and about three minutes of weightlessness before gliding back to touchdown in New Mexico.

It was the company's 12th piloted up-and-down sub-orbital flight, its seventh with paying customers aboard and the final flight of Unity as Virgin develops its more capable Delta spaceplanes, expected to begin commercial operations in 2026.

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Virgin Galactic's Unity rocket plane races out of the lower atmosphere, carrying two pilots and four passengers, including Turkey's second professional astronaut, to the edge of space in the company's seventh commercial spaceflight. Virgin Galactic

With veteran pilot Nicola Pecile and rookie Jameel Janjua at the controls, Unity was carried aloft from New Mexico's Spaceport America by Virgin Galactic's twin-fuselage ferry ship, Eve, taking off at 10:31 a.m. EDT.

Following Virgin's standard flight plan, the carrier jet released the spaceplane an hour later at an altitude of 44,500 feet. Pecile and Janjua then ignited the ship's hybrid rocket motor to begin a supersonic climb out of the dense lower atmosphere.

Minutes later, traveling at nearly three times the speed of sound, the engine shut down and the passengers unstrapped to float about the cabin and marvel at the view. Unity coasted up to an altitude of 54.4 miles, just above the somewhat arbitrary 50-mile altitude that NASA and the U.S. military consider the "boundary" of space.

Joining Pecile and Janjua for Virgin's second flight this year were Italian Giorgio Manenti, Irving Pergament of New York, Californian Anand Sadhwani and Tuva Atasever, the second Turkish astronaut to fly into space.

Atasever was sponsored by Axiom Space of Houston to carry out microgravity research to learn more about the effects of weightlessness. It was Axiom's first sub-orbital flight after sending 12 commercial astronauts to the International Space Station in three missions, including Alper Gezeravci, Turkey's first astronaut.

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Turkish astronaut Tuva Atasever, left, shares his excitement with three space tourists as they enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness aboard Virgin Galactic's Unity spaceplane. VIrgin Galactic

"As a country, this will take our space research to the next level and hopefully enlighten and inspire next generations," Atasever said Friday.

Shortly after Unity arced over the top of its trajectory, all four passengers strapped back into their seats for the long glide back to Earth and touchdown on Spaceport America's 15,000-foot-long runway. Mission duration from takeoff to landing was about one hour.

"Congratulations, @AstroTuva, on a successful mission!" Axiom said on the social media platform X. "The research conducted during #Galactic07 contributes to Türkiye's scientific efforts in space, part of a larger effort to expand the country's space exploration capabilities and establish a national human spaceflight program."

It was the final flight for Virgin's Unity spaceplane as the company transitions to the new Delta design, "was a breathtaking and proud moment as we celebrate the ship's unprecedented achievements in human spaceflight and build momentum for the rollout of our first Delta Class ships in 2026, " Virgin CEO Michael Colglazier said in a web post.

With Saturday's flight, Virgin Galactic has now launched 61 passengers and crew, including several who have flown more than once, on 12 sub-orbital space flights since an initial test flight in December 2018. The passenger list includes company founder Richard Branson, who was on hand for Saturday's flight.

Blue Origin, owned by Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, also offers sub-orbital spaceflights using a more traditional ground-launched rocket and crew capsule known as New Shepard. The fully automated spacecraft can carry six passengers at a time.

Blue Origin has launched 38 space tourists, including Bezos, since crewed flights began in July 2021.

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