Virgin Galactic prepares for commercial space tourism after successful final test flight

The first commercial Virgin Galactic flight, called 'Galactic 01', is expected to go ahead in June.
Chris Young
VSS Unity during the Unity 25 mission.
VSS Unity during the Unity 25 mission.

Virgin Galactic / YouTube 

Virgin Galactic successfully completed its fifth spaceflight with the crewed mission Unity 25.

The impressive milestone paves the way for the company to begin commercial operations next month, meaning the space tourism company will make the boundary of space much more accessible — to the world's richest, that is.

It's a big step for a company whose main competitor, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, is currently grounded following a mishap during a suborbital rocket launch last year.

Virgin Galactic now looks ahead to its first commercial spaceflight

The mission, which took flight at 11:15 am EDT (15:15 GMT) yesterday, May 25, was Virgin Galactic's first crewed space plane flight since July 2021, when it sent billionaire Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson and a crew up to the edge of space.

As with Virgin Galactic's other crewed flights, the Unity 25 crew took off aboard the six-passenger space plane VSS Unity attached to its carrier aircraft VMS Eve.

When Eve reached an altitude of roughly 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), it dropped Unity, which then fired up its rocket engine to fly up to suborbital space. Once there, the passengers experienced a few minutes of weightlessness before gliding back down to Earth for a runway landing at Virgin Galactic's Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Eight people, all Virgin Galactic employees, flew to high altitudes aboard VSS Unity and VMS Eve. VMS Eve was piloted by Jameel Janjua and Nicola Pecile, while Mike Masucci and C.J. Sturckow piloted VSS Unity. The four passengers riding in VSS Unity's cabin were Beth Moses, the company's chief astronaut instructor, astronaut instructor Luke Mays, and mission specialists Christopher Huie and Jamila Gilbert.

Virgin Galactic prepares for commercial space tourism after successful final test flight
VSS Unity gliding back down to Spaceport America.

Once it was released, VSS Unity reached a maximum speed of Mach 2.94, meaning it was close to three times the speed of sound. It also reached a peak altitude of 87.2 kilometers (54.2 miles).

Both NASA and the US Air Force consider anywhere above the 50-mile line to be space, though others consider the 100-km (60-mile) "Kármán Line" to be the boundary of space — Blue Origin, which flies above that boundary, is always sure to highlight the "internationally recognized boundary of space" during every launch live stream.

Virgin Galactic soars as Virgin Orbit bites the dust

Unity 25 refers to the number of test flights the space plane has carried out, including lower altitude tests. Overall, Virgin Galactic has carried out five spaceflights.

In a press statement, Virgin Galactic stated that the Unity 25 mission brings an end to its series of test missions. The company said it is now readying "for commercial spaceline operations beginning with the 'Galactic 01' mission planned for late June. According to a report, Galactic 01 will be a research flight booked by the Italian Air Force.

Virgin Galactic didn't livestream the Unity 25 mission, though it has posted highlights of the spaceflight on its YouTube channel, viewable in the embedded video below.

The successful last test flight for Virgin Galactic will come as a great boost for Sir Richard Branson following the ignominious failure of Virgin Group's other space company, the satellite-launch firm Virgin Orbit, which recently filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations after selling off its assets.

The failure of Virgin Orbit highlights the complexity of space operations, as does the fact that Virgin Galactic's main competitor, Blue Origin, currently has its fleet of suborbital New Shepard rockets grounded. Last year, the company's uncrewed science mission NS-22 had to trigger its emergency capsule system following an anomaly.

Blue Origin, which was founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is currently not allowed to fly space tourism flights aboard New Shepard until the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) finishes a full investigation.

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