Virgin Galactic conducted its fifth test flight into suborbital space this morning (May 25), likely allowing the company to start commercial operations next month.
Today’s mission, known as Unity 25, was Virgin Galactic’s first trip to the final frontier since July 2021, when it sent the billionaire founder of Virgin Group Richard Branson and several other passengers. But don’t expect such a long gap between Unity 25 and the company’s next spaceflight.
“We believe that if all goes well, we will be ready for our first commercial flight in June,” said Mike Moses, president of space missions and safety at Galactic Virgotold Space.com in an upstream call yesterday (May 24).
This upcoming historic mission, he added, is a research flight booked by the Italian Air Force.
Related: Virgin Galactic’s first fully crewed spaceflight with billionaire Richard Branson (photos)
Successful takeoff a few minutes ago. Great view from @Spaceport_NM! #Unit25 pic.twitter.com/thF3fMhW4BMay 25, 2023
Space flight success number 5
Virgin Galactic uses an air launch system to take people and research payloads into suborbital space. This system currently consists of two operational vehicles: a two-pilot, six-passenger spaceplane named VSS Unity and a carrier plane known as VMS Eve.
Unity takes off from a runway, carried under Eve’s wings. When Eve reaches an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), she drops Unity, which then fires its onboard rocket engine to zoom into suborbital space.
Passengers aboard Unity can experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see Earth against the blackness of space before heading home for a runway landing.
Unity has now made this journey five times. (“Unity 25” refers to the total number of test flights performed by the spaceplane, which includes tethered flights and glides in earth’s atmosphere.)
Today’s mission began at 11:15 a.m. EDT (1515 GMT), when Eve took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico with Unity anchored to a pylon between the carrier’s twin fuselages.
A total of eight people boarded the two vehicles, all Virgin Galactic employees. Jameel Janjua and Nicola Pecile piloted VMS Eve, and Mike Masucci and CJ Sturckow piloted VSS Unity. In the cabin of the spaceplane were Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor (and Mike Moses’ wife), astronaut instructor Luke Mays, and mission specialists Christopher Huie and Jamila Gilbert. Unity 25 marked the third spaceflight for Beth Moses and the first for her three crewmates.
After its release, Unity reached a maximum speed of Mach 2.94 (nearly three times the speed of sound) and a maximum altitude of 54.2 miles (87.2 kilometers), Virgin Galactic representatives said in a communicated. statement issued shortly after the flight. (The company did not livestream today’s flight.)
That’s high enough to be considered spaceflight, according to NASA and the US Air Force, which award astronaut wings to anyone over 80 km. Some other authorities, however, consider outer space to begin at an altitude of 62kmTHE (100 kilometers).
Unity returned to Earth at 12:37 p.m. EDT (4:37 p.m. GMT), landing on a runway at Spaceport America. Eve followed a few minutes laterofficially ending the Unity 25 mission.
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“Knock down the tires” on upgraded vehicles
After the July 2021 flight, Virgin Galactic grounded Eve and Unity for maintain and modernize vehicles. Most of this work involved Eve and was designed to allow the carrier aircraft to sustain a relatively high flight rate in the future, Mike Moses said. For example, Virgin Galactic replaced Eve’s pylon after Branson’s flight, which was called Unity 22.
“The old design was strong enough and had enough capacity,” Moses said of the pylon. “But he didn’t have a lot of extra abilities.”
Such changes have made the Eve-Unity system stronger and more future-proof, he added.
That being said, the company was already pretty confident in the two vehicles, which had proven themselves in four previous spaceflights before today’s flight. Virgin Galactic didn’t need to prove any level of hardware performance during Unity 25, Moses said. Instead, he likened the mission to soft-opening a restaurant — the last checkout before rushing through.
“It’s our race right before opening night, right, where we kind of kick the tires and check that everything is there,” he said.
However, Virgin Galactic wanted to overhaul its astronaut training practices a bit, which is why Huie and Gilbert made the trip today with astronaut trainers Mays and Beth Moses.
Huie and Gilbert “are much more representative of what a customer would be, and so they get the customer training profile, not really improved more than that,” Mike Moses said.
“They will be able to experience this as a flyer would a commercial ticket,” he added. “So that’s kind of the main focus of the flight, that – I would call that validation of training and validation of experience.”
Increase theft rate
Virgin Galactic aims to fly around once a month with Eve and Unity once commercial operations begin, Mike Moses said. But the company is aiming even higher in the long term: it is building a fleet of new “Delta-class” space planes designed to be able to fly once a week.
Once these new vehicles enter service, a milestone scheduled for 2026, Virgin Galactic could ferry paying customers to suborbital space every day. (A ticket to ride with the company currently costs $450,000and hundreds of people have reserved a spot so far.)
“It’s going to be a big change when that happens,” said Mike Moses. “I’m really looking forward to it from a business operations perspective. That’s one of the reasons I joined this company was to get to a place where space travel is a lot more routine for more people.”
Virgin Galactic has a main competitor in the suborbital space tourism business – Jeff Bezos blue origin. Blue Origin’s rocket-capsule combo, called New Shepard, has launched people on six space missions to date, but hasn’t flown since September 2022, when the vehicle suffered an anomaly during an unmanned search mission.