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Virgin Galactic Set for Commercial Spaceflight After Successful SpaceShipTwo Flight Test

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
May 25, 2023
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Virgin Galactic Set for Commercial Spaceflight After Successful SpaceShipTwo Flight Test
VSS Unity’s engine ignites during a suborbital flight test on May 25, 2023.
Image credit: webcast.

With a successful flight on Thursday (May 25), Virgin Galactic (NYSE: SPCE) completed SpaceShipTwo’s 13-year-long flight test program, paving the way for the start of commercial suborbital crewed flights in late June.

The final test lasted 22 minutes and saw the VSS Unity spacecraft fly 54.2 miles (87.2 km) over the New Mexico desert with two pilots in the cockpit and four company employees in the passenger cabin, according to Virgin Galactic. The rocket plane was dropped over the desert by the twin-fuselage WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve mothership. VSS Unity then glided to a landing at Spaceport America.

Mission commander Mike Masucci and pilot CJ Sturckow flew VSS Unity. Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses made her third suborbital flight to evaluate the passenger experience. She was joined in the passenger cabin by three rookies, including Astronaut Instructor Luke Mays, Flight Sciences Engineer Chris Huie, and New Mexico native Jamila Gilbert.

Jameel Janjua served as the commander of the VMS Eve carrier aircraft that air-launched the spacecraft, and Nicola Pecile was in the pilot seat.

Virgin Galactic plans to fly Italian Air Force pilots Col. Walter Villadei and Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi, and the Italian National Research Council’s Pantaleone Carlucci on the company’s first commercial crew flight at the end of June, which is now possible thanks to this successful test. Moses will join them in the passenger cabin on the research mission.

Virgin Galactic has previously earned revenue from flying microgravity experiments in the cabin without any researchers aboard. The Italian flight will be the first time that paying passengers will be aboard the spaceship.

In the third quarter, Virgin Galactic will begin to fly the first of around 800 ticket holders, some of whom put down deposits beginning in 2005. Seats originally sold for $200,000, but Virgin Galactic raised the price to $250,000 in 2013, and then to $450,000 in 2022.

Company officials have said they expect VSS Unity to fly on a monthly basis with up to four passengers per flight. The advanced Delta-class SpaceShipTwo vehicles, which are set to begin commercial flights in 2026, are being designed to fly on a weekly basis with six passengers.

VSS Unity‘s last powered flight test was on July 11, 2021. It carried company Founder Richard Branson, Moses, and two company employees to test the astronaut experience.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded VSS Unity for more than a month because the spacecraft veered outside of its assigned airspace during the flight. Virgin Galactic then took the space plane and its VMS Eve mothership out of service for a series of modifications. VSS Unity completed a glide flight on April 26 to test the modifications.

The completion of the flight test program was a long time coming. Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson announced plans for SpaceShipTwo in September 2004, with plans to begin flying passengers on suborbital flights as early as 2007. More than a decade of delays, marred by two fatal accidents that killed four people, followed.

WhiteKnightTwo kicked off the flight test program with a maiden flight on Dec. 21, 2008. It carried the first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, on its first captive carry flight on Oct. 20, 2010. VSS Enterprise had its first powered flight on April 29, 2013. The rocket plane was destroyed on its fourth powered flight on Oct. 31, 2014.

Editor’s note (5/25/2023): This article has been updated with additional details about the test flight, provided by Virgin Galactic.

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