- Virgin Galactic is preparing to launch its first spaceflight in nearly two years on Thursday.
- The mission, called Unity 25, marks the company’s fifth spaceflight to date and is the first since founder Sir Richard Branson’s launch to the edge of space.
- It’s a defining moment in the history of Virgin Galactic, which has suffered repeated setbacks, numerous disasters and years of delays in developing its own spaceflight system.
The aircraft carries the VMS EVE with the VSS Unity spacecraft during a flight test.
Virgin Galactic is preparing to launch its first spaceflight in nearly two years on Thursday, as the space tourism company aims to pass a final test before flying commercial passengers.
The mission, dubbed Unit 25, marks the company’s fifth spaceflight to date and is launched from Spaceport America in New Mexico. It marks the “Final Evaluation” flight, carrying six Virgin Galactic employees on a short trip to the edge of space.
Virgin Galactic will not publicly broadcast the flight, unlike a previous spaceflight that carried founder Sir Richard Branson in July 2021. Instead, the company plans to provide updates on Unity 25’s progress on social media.
The VMS Eve carrier aircraft is expected to take off around 10 a.m. ET, and carry the company’s VSS Unity spacecraft to an altitude of about 40,000 feet before launching the rocket-powered vehicle. VSS Unity will then fire its engine, aiming to climb through 80 kilometers (or about 262,000 feet) – an altitude that the US recognizes as the frontier of space.
Known as suborbital, this type of spaceflight gives passengers a few minutes of weightlessness, unlike the longer, more difficult and more expensive private orbital flights conducted by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Based on the results and data gathered from Unity 25, the company is aiming to carry out its first commercial mission in “late June.”
Mike Masucci and CJ Sturckow will pilot VSS Unity, while Jamil Janjua and Nicola Bissell will fly the VMS Eve carrier aircraft. In the cabin will be Senior Astronaut Beth Moses, as well as Astronaut Instructor Luke Mace, Chief Engineering Officer Christopher Hoy, and Director of Internal Communications Jamila Gilbert.
An aerial view of the VMS Eve carrier aircraft, left, and the VSS Unity spacecraft, at Spaceport America in New Mexico on February 27, 2023.
Unity 25 marks a defining moment in the history of Virgin Galactic, which has suffered repeated setbacks and years of delays in developing its own spaceflight system.
Branson’s space flight nearly two years ago came after nearly 17 years in the business, and an investment of more than $1 billion in the company. Before that, spacecraft development had seen several disasters, including a rocket engine explosion on Earth in 2007 that killed three Scaled Composite employees, as well as the crash of the first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, in 2014 that killed Virgin’s co-pilot. Galactic Michael Ellsbury and injured pilot Peter Siebold.
After Branson’s spaceflight, Virgin Galactic suspended operations for a longer-than-expected refurbishment period while the company worked on their spacecraft and carrier aircraft, following an FAA investigation into a mishap during his flight. The renovation was scheduled to take about eight to ten months, but ended up taking about 16 months.
Virgin Galactic has yet to generate meaningful revenue, and needs to take regular spaceflights in order to do so. While the company has nearly $900 million in cash and stock on hand, its quarterly cash burn continues to rise as it invests heavily in expanding its spacecraft fleet.
Virgin Galactic needs to bring its future Delta class to market for weekly flights, but those spacecraft aren’t expected to begin flying until 2026.
The VSS Unity is designed to carry up to six passengers along with the two pilots. The company has 600 reservations for tickets for future flights, selling at prices between $200,000 and $250,000 each. It reopened ticket sales in 2021, with prices starting at $450,000 per seat.
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