virgin galactic

Virgin Galactic completes final test flight before arrival of paying customers

Image credit: virgin galactic

Virgin Galactic has completed what could be its final spaceflight test before the company starts commercial operations ferrying paying passengers on short space journeys.

Founded nearly 20 years ago by Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic has been developing commercial spacecraft and aims to provide suborbital spaceflights to space tourists at around $450,000 (£363,000) per ticket.

The latest VSS Unity flight took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico and saw the six crew members fly for 14 minutes and experience a short period of weightlessness.

The spaceplane was carried up to an altitude of 44,500 feet by a mothership before being released to fire its rockets to make the final push into space.

Other than a shorter test flight last month, yesterday’s test was the first for two years after US regulators opened an investigation in 2021 into why a July flight - with Sir Richard on board - saw the spaceship deviate significantly from its intended path on its return to Earth.

Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier has acknowledged the delays and missed deadlines over the years. On Thursday, he said seeing the crew’s reactions after landing gave him confidence in what the company has built so far.

The flight was designed to emulate the experience of what it will be like for paying customers once the commercial service launches, many of whom have waited for years while the firm irons out technical and regulatory hurdles.

In an interview after the flight, Virgin Galactic’s safety president Mike Moses said the ship had made it back to Earth in a good condition and that the company was ready to press ahead with its first commercial flight.

“I’m ever the engineer,” he said, “so we’ll go look at our data. We’ll pore through everything. We’ll make sure we slice and dice all the numbers. But there is nothing today that says we’re not on track.”

In a recent earnings report, the firm said it had $159m in the first quarter of this year, more than the $93m it had lost a year earlier.

The company is facing competition from Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which is also ferrying high-paying customers to space albeit in a more traditional and expensive vertical rocket launch system.

The high price of launching a firm focused on space travel has already laid claim to Virgin Orbit, a spin-off venture from Virgin Galactic with aims to launch commercial payloads into orbit.

Virgin Orbit filed for bankruptcy in March this year, following a failed rocket launch from Spaceport Cornwall, UK. Earlier this week, the company confirmed that it was permanently ceasing all operations and sold off its assets at auction.  

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles