The VMS EVE aircraft carries with the VSS Unity spacecraft during a flight test.
Galactic Virgo 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 carrying commercial passengers.
Called Unity 25, the mission represents the company’s fifth spaceflight to date and launches from Spaceport America in New Mexico. It marks a “final evaluation” flight, with six Virgin Galactic employees on board for a short trip to the far reaches of space.
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Virgin Galactic will not publicly broadcast the flight live, unlike its previous spaceflight which carried founder Sir Richard Branson in July 2021. Instead, the company plans to give updates on Unity 25 progress. on social networks.
The VMS Eve carrier plane is expected to lift off around 10 a.m. ET, carrying the company’s VSS Unity spacecraft to an altitude of around 40,000 feet before releasing the rocket-powered vehicle. VSS Unity will then fire up its engine, aiming to climb beyond 80 kilometers (or about 262,000 feet) – the altitude the United States recognizes as the limit of space.
Known as a sub-orbital, this type of spaceflight offers passengers a few minutes of weightlessness, unlike the much longer, more difficult and more expensive private orbital flights performed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Based on the results and data collected from Unity 25, the company aims to conduct its first trade mission “at the end of June”.
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VSS Unity will be piloted by Virgin Galactic’s Mike Masucci and CJ Sturckow, while carrier aircraft VMS Eve will be piloted by Jameel Janjua and Nicola Pecile. In the passenger cabin will be Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses, along with Astronaut Instructor Luke Mays, Senior Director of Engineering Christopher Huie and Senior Director of Internal Communications Jamila Gilbert.
A pivotal moment
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 represents a pivotal moment in the history of Virgin Galactic, which has suffered repeated setbacks and years of delays in the development of its spaceflight system.
Branson’s spaceflight nearly two years ago came after nearly 17 years of work and more than $1 billion invested in the company. Prior to that, spacecraft development saw several disasters, including a 2007 ground rocket engine explosion that killed three Scaled Composite employees, as well as the crash of SpaceShipTwo’s first vehicle, VSS Enterprise, in 2014 that killed the co-pilot of Virgin Galactic. Michael Alsbury and injured pilot Peter Siebold.
After Branson’s spaceflight, Virgin Galactic suspended operations for a longer than planned refurbishment period while the company worked on its spacecraft and carrier aircraft, following an FAA investigation into an incident during his trip. The renovation process was expected to take about eight to 10 months, but ended up taking nearly 16 months.
Virgin Galactic has yet to generate significant revenue and must regularly perform spaceflight to do so. While the company has nearly $900 million in cash and securities, its quarterly cash burn continues to rise as it invests heavily in expanding its starship fleet.
Virgin Galactic is due to bring its future Delta class to market for weekly flights, but those spacecraft aren’t expected to start flying until 2026.
VSS Unity is designed to seat up to six passengers with both pilots. The company has 600 ticket reservations on future flights, sold at prices between $200,000 and $250,000 each. It reopened ticket sales in 2021, with pricing starting at $450,000 per seat.