Next to a successful flight to the edge of space On Thursday, space tourism company Virgin Galactic announced that it was ready to enter commercial service in June.
The Virgin Galactic aircraft, VMS Eve, departed the New Mexico launch site with a crew of six (plus two aircraft pilots) at around 9:15 a.m. MT. The VSS Unity spaceplane fell off the jet’s wing just over an hour later, lifting off into suborbital space at an altitude of 44,500 feet. The whole mission lasted about 90 minutes.
Thursday’s mission, called Unity 25, concludes a nearly two-year hiatus in company operations. This last flight which took place in June 2021, also took six people into suborbital space, including the company’s founder, billionaire Richard Branson. Although Virgin Galactic did not broadcast the Unity 25 mission, the company kept its followers updated on social media. NASA Spaceflight, a private news website heavily followed on YouTube and Twitter, unofficially broadcast the flight live.
The Unity 25 crew included Virgin employees Jamila Gilbert, Christopher Huie, Luke Mays and Beth Moses. The VSS Unity space plane was piloted by Mike Masucci and CJ Sturckow, while VMS Eve was commandeered by Jameel Janjua and Nicola Pecile.
“The ‘Unity 25’ mission was a fantastic achievement for everyone at Virgin Galactic,” CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement. “Seeing the pure joy of our inspiring crew on landing, I have complete confidence in the unique astronaut experience we have built for our customers. Our teams are now beginning post-flight analysis as well as preparation of “Galactic 01”, our commercial research mission, scheduled for the end of June.
The successful flight marks a crucial step for the company, which now says it is finally ready to enter commercial operations next month. Virgin Galactic said in a statement that it had achieved the two main objectives of the mission: to perform a final evaluation of VMS Eve and VSS Unity and to evaluate astronaut training and spaceflight experience. The commercial flight will carry three Italian Air Force officers, under a contract announced in 2019.
Virgin Galactic has been plagued by years of technical issues and regulatory delays. The company is said to have burned nearly $1.5 billion since 2018, though it still has about $1 billion of runway. Virgin Galactic eventually aims to fly once a week using its in-development Delta-class suborbital spaceplanes, with a ticket price of around $450,000.
Virgin Galactic is distinct from Virgin Orbit, a commercial company also founded by Branson which is in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings. Virgin Galactic is a space tourism company, while Virgin Orbit aspired to deliver small spacecraft payloads into orbit.
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