Virgin Galactic Ready to Resume Crewed Flights

Virgin Galactic Ready to Resume Crewed Flights

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic plans to resume crewed suborbital spaceflights later this month. The first flight will carry only company employees, but the long-awaited first commercial flight is planned for late June. The move comes almost two years after SpaceShipTwo last took people, including Branson, to space and follows a bankruptcy filing for Branson’s other space company, Virgin Orbit.

Over the last several days and during a telecon today on 1st quarter 2023 earnings, Virgin Galactic has been laying out  plans to finally start launching people on suborbital flights on a commercial, revenue-raising basis. To date, only employees have flown on a series of test flights including the July 2021 flight that included Branson.

SpaceShipTwo is a two-part system — an aircraft and a spacecraft. Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Unity is attached to a WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, Virgin Mother Ship (VMS) Eve, when it takes off from a runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico. At about 45,000 feet, the two separate and VSS Unity’s rocket engine fires to take the two pilots and any passengers to an altitude of about 80,000 feet and then glides back to land at Spaceport America. The entire experience takes about 1.5 hours, but only a few minutes are in space.

Virgin Galactic’s VMS Eve aircraft carrying the VSS Unity spacecraft (with the Virgin Galactic logo). Credit: Virgin Galactic

Branson created Virgin Galactic almost 20 years ago in 2004 with the expectation routine passenger flights to space were only a few years away. Progress was slow, however, and a fatal tragedy in 2014 during a flight test caused more delays.

Hopes were high when Branson flew on Unity 22 on July 11, 2021 in a highly publicized flight timed to upstage competitor Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, who had already announced he would be aboard the first crewed spaceflight of his New Shepard suborbital rocket on July 20, the anniversary of Apollo 11 lunar landing.

Unity 22 was a success although a flight route deviation led to an FAA investigation. The FAA cleared it to fly again in time for the next scheduled flight in October 2021, but by then Virgin Galactic had decided to delay all flights and make a number of modifications to the system — an “enhancement period” — after laboratory tests indicated problems with the strength margins of certain materials.

It wasn’t until two weeks ago that VSS Unity made a glide flight to test the modifications. VSS Unity 24 was released from VMS Eve at 47,000 feet and the two pilots glided it down to a landing 9 minutes later.

The next test flight, designated Unity 25, is planned for later this month and will go all the way to space. A specific date hasn’t been announced yet, but the two pilots and four passengers were revealed yesterday. All work for Virgin Galactic.

Most of Unity’s flights were powered or unpowered test flights. Only four have passed the 80 kilometer (62 mile) altitude the FAA uses as the delineation between air and space.

Blue Origin uses 100 km ( 80 miles) as that threshold in accordance with the international standard set by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). Blue Origin made six successful crewed suborbital flights between July 2021 and August 2022, but the New Shepard rocket has been grounded since a September 2022 failure. No people were aboard that flight, only experiments, all of which survived and will be reflown on the next mission.

Assuming all goes well, Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight, Galactic 01, will take place in late June carrying members of the Italian Air Force, the flight previously scheduled for October 2021.

During the financial earnings telecon today, CEO Michael Colglazier was optimistic about the return-to-flight and upcoming commercial missions to raise revenue. The company experienced a net loss of $159 million in the first quarter of 2023, but its cash position “remains strong” at $874 million as of March 31.

Virgin Galactic is developing a new Delta spaceship that is expected to begin revenue-generating flights in 2025 with private astronaut flights in 2026.  Colglazier said investing in Delta is “our top priority to drive future growth and profitability,” but they will be remain flexible “around the sequencing of our various programs.”  Weekly flights with six passengers per flight are planned and CFO Doug Ahrens said that at “$450,000 or more” per seat, they expect “at least $2.7 million in revenue for each spaceflight.”

VMS Eve will be used for initial flights of the Delta-class ships, but they are developing a new mother ship as well. As an example of how they are leveraging flexibility, Ahrens said the second mother ship will enter service “later than originally planned” to manage spending.

Virgin Galactic carries people to space on suborbital trips. Its sister company, Virgin Orbit, launches satellites to orbit with a similar air-launched system. After a failure in January, however, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It continues to operate during this process and is getting the LauncherOne rocket ready for another flight in the hope a new owner will step forward rather than being forced to sell its assets.


This article has been updated.

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