Commercial space travel is on the brink of a significant milestone as Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, confirmed the resumption of its flights, marking the end of a nearly two-year hiatus. The company recently announced that it had scheduled its first commercial space flight for June following a successful mission slated for later this month.
Unity 25: A Crucial Test Flight
The forthcoming mission, dubbed Unity 25, will be a crucial test flight for the company, carrying four of its employees into the expanse of space. Virgin Galactic, which has not launched a mission since Branson’s historic flight in July 2021, stated that Unity 25 is intended as a final comprehensive evaluation of the spaceflight system and astronaut experience ahead of the commencement of commercial service.
“Unity 25 is the final assessment of the full spaceflight system and astronaut experience before commercial service opens in late June,” the company said in a statement.
Virgin Galactic’s CEO, Michael Colglazier, conveyed an optimistic outlook to investors during the company’s recent earnings call on February 28, 2023. “We are making good progress on validating the enhancements made throughout 2022, and we remain on track for commercial service in Q2 of this year,” he said.
This upcoming mission will mark Virgin Galactic’s fifth venture into space, a boundary defined by the internationally accepted Kármán Line, set at an altitude of 50 miles (80 kilometers) above sea level.
Overcoming Challenges And Preparing For The Test Flight
Virgin Galactic has not been without its challenges, as evidenced by the need to abort several missions in recent years due to technical issues. One notable hiccup involved the company’s founder, Sir Richard Branson. During his groundbreaking flight to the edge of space in the summer of 2021, the spacecraft experienced a few anomalies that subsequently required investigation by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
After a thorough investigation by the US FAA, Virgin Galactic was given the green light in September 2021 to resume its missions. However, the company unexpectedly put a hold on the commencement of its commercial services. The delay was attributed to a series of unrelated technology upgrades that the company deemed necessary for successful and safe future space flights.
The crew for Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft for this month’s test mission includes two seasoned pilots, CJ Sturckow and Mike Masucci, as well as four Virgin Galactic employees who will serve as passengers.
The quartet consists of Jamila Gilbert, a New Mexican native and the company’s internal communications staff member; Christopher Huie, a flight sciences engineer and son of Jamaican immigrants; Luke Mays, an astronaut instructor and former NASA employee; and Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s head of astronaut training, who already has two prior flights under her belt.
Looking Forward: Commercial Services, Partnerships, And New Spaceships
VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered plane, has been engineered to ascend to approximately 50,000 feet while tethered beneath the wing of a colossal, twin-fuselage mothership fondly named “Eve” by the company. Upon reaching this altitude, the spacecraft is designed to detach from the mothership, ignite its rocket engine, and move upward under the control of its two pilots.
The flights aim to exceed 50 miles above Earth, venturing into altitudes that the US government acknowledges as the boundary of outer space. However, this definition varies internationally, with the Kármán Line—lying 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface—commonly recognized as the threshold of space.
At the peak of the flight, passengers will savor a few minutes of weightlessness, allowing them a breathtaking glimpse of Earth’s curved horizon and the infinite expanse of outer space through the plane’s windows. VSS Unity will then glide back to its launch site, completing a mission that typically spans less than two hours from takeoff to landing.
In February of 2022, the company announced that tickets for its inaugural public spaceflights would be on sale for US$450,000 each, requiring a US$100,000 initial deposit.
By November, however, the company reported a net quarterly loss of US$146 million. Reservations had stalled at 800, with US$104.8 million in deposits from eager ‘future astronauts’. On the brighter side, the company maintained a healthy cash reserve, with US$1.1 billion in liquid assets on the balance sheet.
Adding to the company’s ambitious plans, the forthcoming Delta class spaceships will be manufactured in part by Bell Textron, a subsidiary of Textron Inc, and Qarbon Aerospace. Virgin Galactic will retain responsibility for the overall system architecture and design authority for all components, as well as the final assembly, integration, checkout, and acceptance testing of the vehicles. These operations will be conducted from its new facility in Arizona.
Revenue-generating payload flights utilizing the first Delta class spaceships are anticipated to commence in late 2025, with private astronaut flights scheduled for 2026. With the ambitious goal of potential weekly launches, Virgin Galactic is gearing up to significantly ramp up its operations.
The company also revealed a partnership with Axiom Space to facilitate microgravity research. A spaceflight is tentatively scheduled for 2023 to prepare an Axiom Space astronaut for a future orbit mission while conducting microgravity research to complement the work they will undertake on the International Space Station.
As Virgin Galactic inches closer to commercial space tourism, this upcoming test flight symbolizes a significant stride in the company’s journey.