Virgin Galactic Says Farewell to VSS Unity

Virgin Galactic Says Farewell to VSS Unity

Virgin Galactic flew the last commercial flight of Virgin SpaceShip (VSS) Unity yesterday. Future suborbital trips will have to wait until the new Delta-class spaceships are ready in 2026. They can carry six passengers instead of four, increasing revenue. This flight, Galactic 07, took a Turkish researcher and three private individuals across the imaginary line that separates air and space for a few minutes of weightlessness.

Founded in 2004 and largely funded by Sir Richard Branson as part of his Virgin Group, Virgin Galactic is still trying to demonstrate that commercial suborbital human spaceflight can be a profitable business. Last year Branson told the Financial Times he would stop investing in Virgin Galactic, putting pressure on CEO Michael Colglazier to cut costs and focus on getting the Delta version flying. After all these years of waiting to fly commercial passengers,VSS Unity will stop after just one year and seven commercial flights.

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

In the company’s third quarter earnings call in November 2023, Colglazier laid out the new plan. At the time he said they would fly Galactic 06 and Galactic 07, with a decision pending on whether there would be a Galactic 08.  It turns out Galactic 07 is the last for Unity.

The Delta version not only is designed to carry six passengers instead of four, a 50 percent improvement, but can be turned around more quickly, with flights twice a week. Colglazier argued that would increase the revenue potential 12 times that of Unity.

Galactic 07 took four passengers to space:

  • Tuva Cihangir Atasever, one of Turkiye’s first two astronauts, who represented the Turkish Space Agency and Axiom Space (he was the backup for Turkiye’s first astronaut, Alper Gezeravci, who flew to the International Space Station on the Axiom-3 mission)
  • Anand “Andy” Harish Sadhwani, a principal propulsion engineer at SpaceX from California
  • Irving Izchak Pergament, an Israeli who is now a real estate developer and private pilot in New York
  • Giorgio Manetti, nicknamed Spider, an Italian living in London who advises clients around the world on hotel and resort management
Credit: Virgin Galactic

Information about the passengers other than Atasever was released only after the flight. They did not participate in a post-flight press conference where Atasever discussed the medical research he conducted that included physical reaction to spaceflight, a radiation dosimeter, and administering insulin doses with commercial insulin pens in microgravity.

Some of those experiments, including the insulin pens, were conducted in association with Axiom. Axiom Chief Astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria said at the press conference that Atasever also is the “first proper Azerbaijani astronaut.” Atasever noted that among the personal items he carried were the flags both of Turkiye and his “motherland,” Azerbaijan, “as we say, two states, one nation.” He also carried a “special piece of fabric that is important for the people of Palestine, who are in a very painful situation right now.”

Virgin Galactic additionally flew two autonomous experiments through NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program for the University of California Berkeley on 3D printing and Purdue University on propellant slosh.

Unity departs Earth attached to an aircraft, Virgin Mother Ship (VMS) Eve, that releases it at about 45,000 feet. Unity then fires its rocket engine to ascend over the imaginary line that separates air and space for a few minutes and then glides back to land back where it started, Spaceport America in New Mexico. Yesterday Nicola Pecile and Jameel Janjua were commander and pilot, respectively of VSS Unity, while Andy Edgell and C.J. Sturckow were commander and pilot of VMS Eve.

The Galactic 07 mission took off at 8:31 am local time (10:31 am EDT) and landed an hour and 10 minutes later. VMS Eve released Unity at an altitude of 44,562 feet and Unity ascended to 54.4 miles, above the 50 mile threshold that Virgin Galactic, the FAA and others use as the demarcation between air and space. The international standard of 62 miles is used by Virgin’s competitor Blue Origin.

VSS Unity flew 32 times of which 12 reached space. The other spaceflights carried only company employees, including Branson, as part of the test program. Branson made his flight in 2021 on Unity’s 22nd mission. It was another two years before Unity flew again in May 2023 on a final test flight before commercial operations began with Galactic 01 in June 2023.

Branson said his decision to stop investing in Virgin Galactic was because Virgin Group wasn’t doing as well financially after the COVID-19 pandemic. He was at Spaceport America cheering on Galactic 07 yesterday.

This article has been updated.

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