Virgin Galactic’s space tourism business plans are back on track after not launching its rocket-powered spacecraft for nearly two years.
Company founder Richard Branson was on board that July 2021 flight besting fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin flight to space by a few weeks. But while Blue Origin went on to launch several spacebound flights with paying customers, Virgin Galactic put its plans on hold.
On Thursday morning, though, a test flight crew on board the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity space plane was dropped from the VMS Eve support aircraft and rocketed up to more than 54 miles altitude, which is above the 50 mile threshold the Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration consider for a person having flown into space. Blue Origin’s New Shepard rockets, however, fly past what is known as the Karman Line, which is 100 km or just over 62 miles high. That line is the internationally known line for having made it into space.
While future plans are for Virgin’s fleet of spaceships to make it that high, there is no shortage of customers lined up for the company to begin the short trips that allow a few minutes of weightlessness while also seeing the curvature of the Earth in the blackness of space.
When originally offered up, reservations were sold at $250,000, a price that grew to $450,000 when new reservations opened back up in early 2022. A company spokesperson last month said Virgin has more than 800 people lined up to fly on future flights.
This mission dubbed Unity 25 that took off and landed from New Mexico’s Spaceport America marks the fifth flight to space for VSS Unity, this one carrying six Virgin Galactic employees. It marks the final flight before the company plans what it’s calling the Galactic 01 mission targeting late June, a commercial research flight with Italian Air Force personnel on board.
Blue Origin, meanwhile, remains grounded by the FAA after a mishap with an uncrewed version of its New Shepard rocket last year, for which the investigation has yet to be completed. The FAA had also grounded Virgin Galactic after Branson’s flight in 2021, but for only about three months before it was cleared to fly again.
New to space were passengers Jamila Gilbert, Christopher Huie and Luke Mays who joined Beth Moses, commander Mike Masucci and pilot CJ Sturckow who had all previously flown spacebound missions.
“I enjoyed a special moment surprising Jamila and Chuie in the Land Rover driving them out to the spaceship,” wrote Brandon on a blog post after the flight. “I opened the door for them, and we had a big hug. I also got two of our engineers to lend me their torches, turned them on and literally “passed the torch” onto our newest astronauts. Now Jamila and Chuie can hand them onto the next people who fly to space with us, and a new tradition has begun.”
The company continues plans to build out a fleet of spaceplanes with a goal of being able to provide 400 flights per year.
“The Unity 25 mission was a fantastic achievement for everyone at Virgin Galactic,” said company CEO Michael Colglazier. “Witnessing our inspiring crew’s pure joy upon landing, I have complete confidence in the unique astronaut experience we have built for our customers.”
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