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Virgin Galactic to Launch First Commercial Spaceflight After Setbacks, Delays

The spaceflight company founded by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson almost two decades ago is scheduled Thursday to take paying customers for the first time to the edge of space.

The mission known as “Galactic 01″ is expected to begin around 10:30 a.m. ET, when the company’s carrier plane takes off from the Spaceport America facility in New Mexico. After the plane reaches an altitude of about 50,000 feet, a spacecraft attached to it will be released to rocket to the edge of space. The company plans to broadcast much of the flight online, with a live stream starting at 11 a.m. ET.

Col. Walter Villadei and Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi from the Italian Air Force and Pantaleone Carlucci, an engineer with the National Research Council of Italy, will be traveling on the spacecraft, along with a Virgin Galactic astronaut. The Italian customers plan to oversee experiments during the flight related to radiation, materials science and other topics, the company said.

The crew is expected to experience several minutes of weightlessness, with the trip lasting about 90 minutes from takeoff of the carrier plane to the spacecraft’s landing. Virgin Galactic pilots will be at the controls of both the carrier plane and spaceship.

The flight aims to mark a shift from Virgin Galactic’s yearslong development and testing phase to an era where the company regularly operates revenue-generating flights to suborbital space for $450,000 a seat. Virgin Galactic has said it is planning for its second commercial trip in August and to begin flying at a monthly rate after that.

“We are at a defining point for the company,” Michael Colglazier, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive, told investors in May.

Virgin Galactic, which went public about four years ago by merging with a special-purpose acquisition company, hasn’t generated significant revenue and isn’t profitable. In 2022, it reported a loss of $500 million and $2.3 million in sales. The stock closed at $4.74 a share on Wednesday, compared with $6.29 a share a year ago and $54.84 at the same time in 2021.

The company made a splash when it took Branson and other staffers on a spaceflight about two years ago, drawing global attention and attracting interest in the nascent market of private human space missions.

Virgin Galactic hunkered down after that, dealing with a regulatory review prompted by how its spacecraft returned to ground during that trip and focusing on preparing its single carrier plane and sole spacecraft for regular service. Executives also took steps to expand its fleet; last year, the company said it would open a new factory in Arizona where staff would assemble future spacecraft and hired a Boeing subsidiary to build it two additional carrier planes.

Virgin Galactic didn’t return to flight until this April, when it conducted a test operation that didn’t attempt to reach space. In May, Virgin Galactic reached space with a crew of staff members on the spacecraft, the first time it had done so since it took Branson and his other crew members up.

The company isn’t the only one offering private space trips. Blue Origin, the space company backed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, has a suborbital spaceflight division.

Blue Origin has completed six human flights using the company’s New Shepard rocket, including one that transported Bezos and three others to space shortly after Branson’s Virgin Galactic flight in 2021. It hasn’t flown since September, when an engine nozzle failed during an uncrewed research mission, cutting the flight short. A Blue Origin spokesman said the company expected to return to flight this year.

SpaceX, the rocket and satellite company led by Elon Musk, flew a crew of private astronauts on a three-day orbital trip in September 2021. It also has twice taken private astronauts or those sponsored by governments to the International Space Station. Those two trips were organized by Axiom Space, a company that is also developing its own orbiting facility and space suits for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Branson, through his Virgin Group, founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 with the goal of broadening access to human spaceflight, long the domain of government space agencies, such as NASA or Russia’s Roscosmos.

The company struggled over the years to develop its technology and contended with funding challenges. Previous dates for starting commercial operations came and went. Delays in space-vehicle development are common.

During a 2014 test flight conducted by an outside company Virgin Galactic was working with, a spaceship broke apart and crashed after its co-pilot made an error, killing him.

Write to Micah Maidenberg at micah.maidenberg@wsj.com

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