'Welcome back to Earth': Virgin Galactic spaceship successfully blasts off to edge of space

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has blasted off to the edge of space, ITV News' Robert Moore reports

Virgin Galactic has blasted off to the edge of space, marking the company's first commercial spaceflight.

After reaching an altitude of around 50,000 feet at 4.30pm UK time, the mothership, VMS Eve, released the rocket plane called VSS Unity with three Italian astronauts on board.

Those inside the spaceship unfurled an Italian flag after reaching a state of weightlessness, having been given the all-clear to unbuckle and "enjoy" zero gravity for a few minutes.

They then returned to their seats and strapped themselves back in ahead of the return journey.

Around 15 minutes later, the crew, including an astronaut instructor, landed safely back on Earth at Spaceport America in New Mexico, having conducted 13 scientific experiments.

British billionaire Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic tweeted: "Welcome back to Earth, #Galactic01! Our pilots, crew and spaceship have landed smoothly at @Spaceport_NM."

One of the astronauts wore a special suit that measured biometric data and physiological responses.

Another conducted tests using sensors to track heart rate, brain function and other metrics while in microgravity.

A third experiment assessed how certain liquids and solids mix in that environment.

This was a first trip to space for mission commander Walter Villadei who was on board. Mr Villadei, who has spent his career in the Italian air force, told ITV News after his flight he "never could have imagined" going to space early on in his career.

"It was amazing the first flight, it's something you can never really forget", he said.

"It's something you can only hope to have the privilege to [experience] but in the end once you have the opportunity to [go into space] it is very different", he added.

"It's a new chapter where more people can have access to space...it's a way to make space become a normal daily environment", Mr Villadei said.

'It's a new chapter where many more people can have access to space', mission commander Walter Villadei told ITV News.

When asked by ITV News about the future of experimental travel following the Titan submersible tragedy, Mr Villadei said while risks remain, training and decades of scientific research are key.

"When you test new vehicles...you face some risks. The point is that the more you design, plan and train people the more you lower this risk.

"But the risk can never really be nullified", he added.

"Commercial space flights benefit from the last fifty years of space flight exploration so it's not really something from scratch", he said.

'The risk can never really be nullified': Walter Villadei said on the future of experimental travel, in relation to the Titan submersible tragedy.

The spaceflight, dubbed Galactic 01, lasted 90 minutes, with the plane's touchdown on the runway prompting cheers and claps by Virgin Galactic staff.

The company will eventually be taking paying customers on spaceflights, and says it has sold around 800 tickets over the past ten years.

While they initially went on sale for $200,000 (£158,000) each, tickets now cost $450,000 (£356,000) per person.

Sir Richard Branson posing for the media on his Virgin Galactic Space craft at the Farnborough International Airshow 2012 in Hampshire. Credit: PA

The company said early fliers have already received their seat assignments.

Thursday's spaceflight came a month after Sir Richard's Virgin Orbit announced it was ceasing operations months after a mission failure in the UK.

In January, the California based company sought to complete the first satellite launch from British soil, with hopes the mission would be a major stepping stone for space exploration from the UK.

But the LauncherOne rocket failed to reach orbit and saw its payload of US and UK intelligence satellites dive into the ocean.

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