Richard Branson’s Space-Tourism Dreams Face a Crucial Test Flight

Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc., the space-tourism startup founded by Richard Branson, plans to send a six-person crew to the edge of space and back on Thursday — a crucial test of whether the company is ready to start its commercial space service late next month.

(Bloomberg) — Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc., the space-tourism startup founded by Richard Branson, plans to send a six-person crew to the edge of space and back on Thursday — a crucial test of whether the company is ready to start its commercial space service late next month.

The flight, called Unity 25, is scheduled to take off at 8 a.m. local time from New Mexico with two seasoned pilots and four passengers — all Virgin Galactic employees. It’s the company’s first crewed mission in almost two years.

Virgin Galactic has a lot riding on the success of Unity 25. It’s only been to space four times before, and has suffered technical issues during flights and a high-profile crash in 2014 that left one pilot dead. The company, which previously expected to start commercial service at the end of 2022, is also working to overcome doubts about its financial viability. 

Some investors are suing Virgin Galactic, accusing it of making misleading statements about the readiness and safety of its vehicles. A successful launch could help quell concerns about the company’s future. 

A failure, on the other hand, would raise new questions, and mark another setback for Branson’s space businesses. Last month, a spinoff company, Virgin Orbit Holdings Inc., filed for bankruptcy after burning through cash and suffering a high-profile launch failure in January.

Virgin Galactic’s stock is up about 27% this year through Wednesday, but at less than $5 a share it’s well below the highs of more than $55 in mid-2021. It was publicly listed through a reverse merger with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, in 2019. 

The company doesn’t plan to offer a live video feed of Unity 25, though said it will give progress updates on Twitter.

Flights Grounded

Virgin Galactic hasn’t seen space since July 2021, when the company famously flew its billionaire founder and five other company employees to the edge of space. The flight took place a week and a half before rival company Blue Origin LLC flew its billionaire founder Jeff Bezos to space and back.

Branson’s flight received plenty of fanfare and seemed to indicate that Virgin Galactic was ready to begin routine trips to space. But a month and a half later, an article in the New Yorker revealed that the trip had deviated from its intended flight path. The US Federal Aviation Administration ultimately grounded Virgin Galactic’s flights as it oversaw an investigation into the mishap.

In September 2021 regulators gave Virgin Galactic launch clearance, but the following month the company said it needed to stand down from new flights while making design improvements and other enhancements to its vehicles. The company repeatedly pushed back the targeted start date for commercial service, eventually settling on late June 2023.

In April, Virgin Galactic conducted a glide flight with its primary spaceplane VSS Unity, during which the vehicle is dropped from its carrier aircraft and glides to a runway without igniting its engine.

A few weeks ago, Virgin Galactic assured investors it was on track to start its commercial service as planned. Its first mission will be a research flight for the Italian Air Force, which will include two Italian military officers, as well as an aerospace engineer with the Italian National Research Council. 

Members of the general public have also bought tickets, paying as much as $450,000 a seat during a sale last year. The price is much higher than in the company’s earlier days, when customers were asked to shell out $250,000.

Final Assessment

Unity will be led by two of Virgin Galactic’s experienced test pilots – Mike Masucci and CJ Sturckow – who must fly and land the spaceplane. The mission is being billed by Virgin Galactic as a “final assessment of the full spaceflight system and astronaut experience” before beginning commercial flights with paying customers.

It’s expected to follow the standard profile for Virgin Galactic missions. Taking off from the company’s launch site at Spaceport America in New Mexico, Virgin Galactic’s massive white carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, will loft Unity up to an altitude of roughly 50,000 feet (15,244 meters).

Eve will then release Unity, if everything goes according to plan, and shortly after the pilots will ignite the spaceplane’s hybrid-rocket engine. Unity will then climb to the edge of space – upwards of 50 miles from the Earth’s surface.

While the passengers on board experience a few minutes of weightlessness, the pilots will reconfigure the spaceplane for reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, and then glide the vehicle down to a runway. Unity will then land like an airplane.

The passengers include first-time flyers Luke Mays, Jamila Gilbert and Christopher Huie. Joining them will be veteran flyer Beth Moses, who became the first woman to fly on a commercial space mission on a previous Virgin Galactic flight in 2019.

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