Virgin Galactic aims to fly first commercial space tourism mission in June

Sir Richard Branson's company will launch six employees to space before starting commercial space tourism operations in June.
Chris Young
VSS Unity.
VSS Unity.

Virgin Galactic 

Virgin Galactic could fly to space once again this month.

The company announced in a statement on its website it is targeting late May for the fifth-ever spaceflight of VSS Unity.

It would also be the first flight of Virgin Galactic's spaceplane since July 2021, when Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson flew to suborbital space with three other crew members. If all goes according to plan, the space tourism firm then hopes to launch its first commercial flight in June.

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity will fly to space again

Every flight Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity has performed so far has been part of a test campaign, and flight number five will be no different. The flight, called Unity 25, is, however, expected to be the last test flight before the spaceplane's space tourism services go fully operational.

"Unity 25 is the final assessment of the full spaceflight system and astronaut experience before commercial service opens in late June," Virgin Galactic wrote in its statement on Monday.

Virgin Galactic launches people into suborbital space for a brief window of time, so they can experience Earth from space. The company uses a piloted space plane named VSS Unity and a carrier plane called VMS Eve. Eve lifts Unity to an altitude of roughly 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), before dropping the spaceplane, which then powers itself to suborbital space.

Much like Blue Origin's New Shepard — which is a vertical rocket that flies a little higher than Unity — passengers onboard experience weightlessness for a few minutes before returning to Earth. In the case of Unity 25, Virgin Galactic will send four Virgin Galactic employees — Jamila Gilbert, Christopher Huie, Luke Mays, and Beth Moses — to space. Mike Masucci and C.J. Sturckow will pilot Unity.

The era of space tourism is underway

The Unity 25 mission gets its name from the fact it will be the 25th flight for Unity, including the very earliest gliding test flights. The mission will take off from Spaceport America in New Mexico, Virgin Galactic's recently-opened operations hub.

In the almost two years since Unity and Eve last took a crew to space, Virgin Galactic has been gradually upgrading the vessels, including replacing Eve's pylon, which links the twin fuselages where Unity is housed during flight. Late last month, the upgraded Unity performed a glide flight test ahead of Unity 25.

Now, if all goes to plan, Virgin Galactic could be on the verge of commencing commercial operations. Its main competitor Blue Origin has already flown several commercial crews to suborbital space, but its New Shepard rocket has been grounded since last year when an anomaly triggered its escape capsule system during an uncrewed scientific mission.

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