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Virgin Galactic, New Boosters Dominated Suborbital Launches in 2023

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
October 2, 2023
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Virgin Galactic, New Boosters Dominated Suborbital Launches in 2023
Col. Walter Villadei (center) holds up an Italian flag during the Galactic 01 research flight.
Image credit: Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic began crewed commercial suborbital flights after nearly two decades of development, Rocket Lab launched a suborbital version of its Electron rocket, and several other suborbital boosters made their maiden flights during the first nine months of 2023.

Crewed Suborbital Flights

Virgin Galactic began commercial service on June 29 when it flew three Italian researchers from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The mission carried Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei and Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi as well as Pantaleone Carlucci of the Italian National Research Council. The three men conducted microgravity experiments and unveiled the Italian flag during the mission.

Virgin Galactic Suborbital Flights
Through September 30, 2023

May 25, 2023Michael Masucci (C), CJ Sturckow (P)Beth Moses (I), Luke Mays (E), Jamila Gilbert (E), Christopher Huie (E)Flight test
June 29, 2023Michael Masucci (C), Nicola Pecile (P)Walter Villadei, Angelo Landolfi, Pantaleone Carlucci, Colin Bennett (I)Microgravity research
Aug. 10, 2023CJ Sturckow (C), Kelly Latimer (P)Jon Goodwin, Keisha Schahaff, Anastatia Mayers, Beth Moses (I)Space tourism
Sept. 8, 2023Nicola Pecile (C), Michael Masucci (P) Timothy Nash, Ken Baxter, Adrian Reynard, Beth Moses (I)Space tourism
Oct. 6, 2023
Kelly Latimer (C), CJ Sturckow (P)Trevor Beattie, Ron Rosano, Namira Salim, Beth Moses (I)Space Tourism
C: Commander
P: Pilot
I: Virgin Galactic instructor
E: Virgin Galactic employee

Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight came almost 19 years after Richard Branson announced plans in September 2004 to send people on suborbital rides, saying at the time service would begin in 2007.

The company conducted tourism flights in August and September. Keisha Schahaff and Anastatia Mayers became the first mother-daughter duo to fly on the same spacecraft. They were also the first citizens of Antigua and Barbuda to fly suborbital. They won their tickets in a raffle that raised money for Space for Humanity, a non-profit organization that pays for rides on suborbital vehicles. Space for Humanity was founded by Dylan Taylor, who owns Parabolic Arc as part of Multiverse Media.

Jon Goodwin waves during the Galactic 02 tourism flight.
Jon Goodwin waves during the Galactic 02 tourism flight. Image credit: Virgin Galactic.

They were joined by Jon Goodwin, 80, who competed in canoeing for Great Britain in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. He became the first Olympian to fly to space, and the second person with Parkinson’s disease to do so.

Goodwin bought his ticket in 2005 when it cost $200,000. (Seats now cost $450,000.) He was the first of Virgin Galactic’s 100 “founder” ticketholders, many of whom paid for tickets in full more than a decade ago.

VSS Unity fires its engine
VSS Unity fires its engines during the Galactic 01 flight. Image credit: Virgin Galactic webcast.

The third commercial flight featured three founders – American Ken Baxter, South African Tim Nash, and Adrian Reynard of the United Kingdom. Nash brought two fossils of human ancestors with him on the flight.

Virgin Galactic’s next flight is scheduled for October 6. Paying customers include Pakistani adventurer Namira Salim, British advertising executive Trevor Beattie, and American educator Ron Rosano.

Virgin Galactic had full dominion over crewed suborbital flight during the first three quarters of the year because rival Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle was grounded after a launch failure in September 2022.

Launch of Blue Origin's New Shepard
New Shepard launches. Image credit: Blue Origin.

That situation is about to change. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced last week that it had closed the investigation into the failure. Blue Origin will be free to launch again once the FAA is satisfied the company has made 21 changes resulting from the investigation.

Blue Origin said it would be flying again soon, beginning with a re-flight of experiments that had been aboard the flight that had failed last year. The company will then resume flying customers to space.

Suborbital Launches by Organization/Agency
Through September 30, 2023

Virgin Galactic404
German Aerospace Center (DLR)/Swedish National Space Agency 202
DLR/HyEnD at University of Stuttgart 112
DLR/European Space Agency101
Directorate General of Armament (France)101
Evolution Space101
Rocket Lab101
Swedish Space Corporation101
Kip Daugirdas011
UP Aerospace011
Source: Wikipedia
HASTE lifts off on its maiden flight.
HASTE lifts off on its maiden flight. Image credit: Rocket Lab.

New Launch Vehicles

On June 18, Rocket Lab launched a suborbital version of its Electron rocket called HASTE (Hypersonic Accelerator Suborbital Test Electron) on its maiden flight from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. The rocket launched the DYNAMO-A technology demonstration mission for Dynetics. HASTE is capable of launching payloads weighing 700 kg (1,543 lb) on a suborbital flight.

Suborbital Flights by Launch Vehicle
Through September 30, 2023

Launch VehicleSuccessesFailuresTotal
Improved Orion404
Terrier-Improved Orion303
Black Brant IX213
Gold Chain Cowboy101
Improved Malemute/Improved Malemute101
Improved Malemute/Improved Orion101
Terrier Terrier Oriole101
SpaceLoft XL011
Terrier-Improved Malemute011
Source: Wikipedia

Evolution Space launched the Gold Chain Cowboy rocket on a successful maiden flight from the Friends of Amateur Rocketry range in California. The startup is developing the booster for commercial use.

On March 19, South Korean startup Innospace conducted a launch of its HANBIT-TLV rocket from the Alcantara Space Center in Brazil. The company is also developing the HANBIT-Nano booster to launch nanosatellites.

The Hybrid Engine Development (HyEnD) student rocketry team at the University of Stuttgart worked with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) to conduct two flight tests of the N2ORTH launch vehicle. The first booster reached an altitude of 64 km (39.8 miles), a new record for a student-built hybrid rocket. The second booster suffered a launch failure.

Suborbital Launches by Purpose
Through September 30, 2023

Flight test 516
Technology demonstration404
Microgravity research303
Space Tourism303
Amateur rocket011
Source: Wikipedia

Suborbital launches were conducted for a range of reasons. The number of space tourism launches will increase in the future if Virgin Galactic maintains its monthly flight cadence and Blue Origin resumes flights of its New Shepard vehicle later this year.

Suborbital Launches by Location
Through September 30, 2023

Launch SiteNationSuccessesFailuresTotal
Wallops IslandUSA516
Spaceport AmericaUSA415
White SandsUSA112
DGA Essais de missilesFrance101
Friends of Amateur RocketryUSA101
Black Rock DesertUSA011
Source: Wikipedia

The Esrange Space Center in Sweden hosted seven suborbital launches followed by NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Fifteen launches were conducted from the United States, 10 from Europe, and one from Brazil.

One response to “Virgin Galactic, New Boosters Dominated Suborbital Launches in 2023”

  1. DP Huntsman says:

    Good summary. Loved the North Rocket video.
    Dave Huntsman

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