Virgin Galactic Resumes Spaceflight as Virgin Orbit Ceases Operations

Virgin Galactic Resumes Spaceflight as Virgin Orbit Ceases Operations

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic conducted its first spaceflight in almost two years today, taking six company employees across the imaginary line between air and space for a few minutes of weightlessness and a great view of Earth. The company provided no live coverage of the “Unity 25” mission, issuing only a few tweets during the flight and a press release afterwards asserting success. Unity 25 flew just two days after Branson’s other space company, Virgin Orbit, ended operations following bankruptcy proceedings.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is a two-part system. The rocket-powered spaceship, VSS Unity, is taken aloft attached to an aircraft, VMS Eve. At about 45,000 feet, the two separate and Unity fires its rocket engines, ascending above the 50-mile (264,000 feet or 80 kilometer) altitude Virgin Galactic and the FAA use as the air/space delineation. After a few minutes in space, Unity glides back to land at its starting point, Spaceport America in New Mexico.

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

The entire flight lasts about 1.5 hours. Fewer than 10 minutes are in space.

Like Blue Origin’s New Shepard, Unity does not go into orbit. The passengers nonetheless are classified as astronauts because they do reach space even if quite briefly.

Designated Unity 25, this is only the fifth SpaceShipTwo flight to reach space. The others were test flights of one type of another. In fact, Virgin Galactic has not indicated when one of them, Unity 23, flew. That number was assigned to the first commercial mission that was scheduled for October 2021, but has been delayed until next month.  It hasn’t been clear whether they were reserving that number for the commercial flight or if they flew Unity 23 without public notice, a departure from its usual practice. If the former, this would have been the 24th flight of Unity, but a tweet from the company today confirmed it’s the 25th.

Branson himself flew on the last spaceflight, Unity 22, on July 11, 2021, with lots of publicity and live video. Unity 24 was a glide test flight last month that did not go to space. The almost two-year gap between the flights was due to the company’s decision to make “enhancements” before commencing commercial flights after laboratory tests indicated problems with the strength margins of certain materials.

Today, publicity clearly was not high on the priority list. The company simply issued a few tweets including a short after-the-fact video of takeoff and basic flight statistics, plus a press release.

It was a commercial website,, that provided live video of whatever could be captured by its reporter/photographer Jack Beyer from his vantage point near Spaceport America. Beyer tweeted these photos that he took of Unity firing its engine after separating from VMS Eve, the rocketship in flight and on the way home.

The pilots and four passengers on the flight were all company employees, just like the previous spaceflights.

Virgin Galactic is intended to be a profit-making company, however. During a financial earnings telecon on May 9, CEO Michael Colglazier was optimistic about 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, he reported.

Branson created Virgin Galactic in 2004 with the expectation routine passenger flights to space were only a few years away. Nineteen years later, the company is finally on the cusp of its first commercial flight, Galactic-01. Colglazier said today they’re targeting “late June” for that mission, which will include two Italian Air Force officers.

Today’s success comes on the heels of a less happy outcome for Branson’s other space company, Virgin Orbit, which spun off from Virgin Galactic in 2017. Also an air-launched system, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket sent satellites into orbit instead of people on suborbital excursions.

Since the rockets are dropped from an aircraft, an air-launched system can take off from almost anywhere in the world on short notice, an advantage not only for commercial customers, but the military.

Branson had expansive plans for Virgin Orbit launches across the globe, starting with Cornwall, U.K.

With much fanfare, that first international launch took off from Spaceport Cornwall on January 9, 2023, but ended in failure because of a dislodged fuel filter in the second stage. It was the second failure in six launch attempts.

Although the company announced the results of the failure investigation on April 19 and optimistically talked about a next flight later this year, two weeks earlier it had commenced Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings hoping to find a buyer, but to no avail. Two days ago, Rocket Lab, Stratolaunch, and Vast Space agreed to pay a total of $36 million for most of the company’s assets and the company announced it will cease operations. Analysts largely blamed poor management, especially the late-2021 decision to go public through a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) that raised less than half of the expected funding coupled with over-spending.


Correction: an earlier version of this article misstated the altitude that Virgin Galactic and the FAA consider the demarcation between air and space. They use 80 kilometers, which is approximately 50 miles or 264,000 feet, above Earth’s mean sea level as that threshold.

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