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Virgin Galactic Achieves 5th Commercial Flight, Sending Researchers Into Sub Orbit

By David Ariosto
Parabolic Arc
November 2, 2023
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Virgin Galactic Achieves 5th Commercial Flight, Sending Researchers Into Sub Orbit
The crew of Galactic 05.
Image credit: Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity space plane soared into sub-orbit on Thursday (November 2), marking the fifth commercial flight for the company and the sixth such flight for the reusable craft in the past half-year.

The mothership, an aircraft named VSS Eve, ascended to an altitude of more than 44,000 feet before releasing the VSS Unity, which then launched from under its wing and traveled some 50 miles higher on its trajectory above the atmosphere and into space.

“Space looks good on you, #Galactic05 crew,” Virgin Galactic posted on X roughly an hour after launch. “Welcome to space 021, 021, and 022!,” referring (and seemingly making a typo) to the newly-minted space travelers on board.

In a bid to make good on its once-a-month flight goal, Galactic 05 – similar to the company’s Galactic 01 mission this summer – was billed as a research mission, ferrying researchers Kellie Gerardi and Alan Stern, as well as a third passenger, whose name was not disclosed. 

Gerardi, a mission operations lead for Palantir Technologies and payload specialist and bioastronautics researcher for the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences, conducted experiments focused on fluid dynamics, human biometrics, and glucose monitoring, with an eye toward improving healthcare protocols in microgravity.

Gerardi prepared for that work aboard parabolic jet flights and during high-g force training in tandem with the National Research Council of Canada. Gerardi is also an author and space influencer, with nearly 700,000 followers on TikTok. 

Stern, the principal investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the broader Kuiper Belt – a doughnut-shaped expanse of icy objects that lay beyond Neptune’s orbit – was funded by the Southwest Research Institute, where he works. Prior to Thursday’s flight, he had participated in 29 NASA science missions, serving as the principal investigator on 14 of them, though he had never traveled to space himself. 

His stated goal aboard Galactic 05 was to conduct a variety of physiological performance experiments in microgravity, supported by an array of biomedical monitors. 

In a recent article he wrote for The Space Review, Stern described how it was “truly surreal to write that I am flying on the very next human spaceflight mission,” the company’s second research mission this year, after his “six applications to be a NASA Space Shuttle mission specialist … fell short.”

“It’s hard for me to process how long I have held this dream and how much effort, most of it unsuccessful (or at best preparatory), that I’ve invested to realize it,” he wrote. 

Those traveling in suborbital vehicles achieve weightlessness. However, they do not reach orbital velocity, which is the speed a craft must sustain to remain in orbit.

Images from the journey were posted on Virgin Galactic’s official X channel on Thursday shortly after launch. After reaching space and descending to the lower atmosphere, VSS Unity’s wings adjusted flight orientation, which then allowed the craft to become a glider. 

Moments later, cheers could be heard on videos posted on X as the craft touched down at Spaceport America, a $209 million state-owned facility in the New Mexico desert, constructed with the principal client being Richard Branson’s spaceflight company, having signed a 20-year lease in 2008.

By Thursday afternoon, shares of Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. soared by 11.4 percent as news of the successful launch and return reached investors.

“The pursuit of scientific discovery has driven Virgin Galactic from the beginning, and we’re thrilled to offer a wide breadth of high-quality and reliable access to space-based research,” said Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, in a preflight statement.

Virgin Galactic is not alone, however, in the list of companies to have conducted – among other ventures – suborbital flights, including Blue Origin, SpaceX, XCOR Aerospace, and Rocket Lab. 

And yet the early days had been rocky. 

The company suffered a series of disasters and delays during early development stages, including a 2007 explosion that killed Virgin Galactic contractors, as well as a 2014 crash that killed test co-pilot Michael Alsbury. 

Still, the company has since made progress to assuage consumer concerns, having sold hundreds of tickets for future flights, starting at roughly $200,000 per seat.

Last month, the company also made history by sending Namira Salim, founder and chairperson of the nonprofit Space Trust, to become the first Pakistani in space. 

David Ariosto

David Ariosto is a journalist, author, and the host and founder of the Space Watch Daily podcast. He has spent more than two decades covering emerging geopolitical issues, technological trends, and the forces between them, working across more than 50 countries. He is currently working on a Knopf-Doubleday book project focused on the gripping saga of the second great Space Race.

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