Following a successful flight to the edge of space on Thursday, space tourism company Virgin Galactic says it is ready to enter commercial service in June.
Virgin Galactic’s aircraft, VMS Eve, departed the New Mexico launch site carrying a crew of six (plus two aircraft pilots) at around 9:15 a.m. MT. The VSS Unity spaceplane dropped from the wing of the jet a little over an hour later, taking off to suborbital space at an altitude of 44,500 feet. The entire mission lasted around 90 minutes.
Thursday’s mission, called Unity 25, concludes a nearly two-year-long pause in operations for the company. That last flight, which took place in June 2021, also took six people to suborbital space, including company founder billionaire Richard Branson. While Virgin Galactic did not broadcast the Unity 25 mission, the company kept followers updated on social media. NASA Spaceflight, a private news website with massive followings on YouTube and Twitter, unofficially livestreamed the flight.
The Unity 25 crew included Virgin employees Jamila Gilbert, Christopher Huie, Luke Mays and Beth Moses. The VSS Unity spaceplane was piloted by Mike Masucci and CJ Sturckow, while VMS Eve was commandeered by Jameel Janjua and Nicola Pecile.
“The ‘Unity 25’ mission was a fantastic achievement for everyone at Virgin Galactic,” CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement. “Witnessing our inspiring crew’s pure joy upon landing, I have complete confidence in the unique astronaut experience we have built for our customers. Our teams now begin post-flight analysis as well as preparation for ‘Galactic 01,’ our commercial research mission, planned for late June.”
The successful flight marks a crucial step for the company, which says it is now finally ready to enter commercial operations as soon as next month. Virgin Galactic said in a statement that it had achieved the two main mission objectives: conducting a final assessment of VMS Eve and VSS Unity and evaluating the astronaut training and spaceflight experience. That commercial flight will carry three officers for the Italian Air Force, part of a contract announced in 2019.
Virgin Galactic has been beset by years of technical snafus and regulatory delays. The company has reportedly burned nearly $1.5 billion since 2018, though it still has around $1 billion in runway. Virgin Galactic eventually aims to conduct a flight once per week using its underdevelopment Delta-class suborbital spaceplanes, at a ticket price of around $450,000.
Virgin Galactic is distinguished from Virgin Orbit, a commercial company also founded by Branson that is in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings. Virgin Galactic is a space tourism company, while Virgin Orbit had aspirations to deliver small spacecraft payloads to orbit.