Final Virgin Galactic test flight paves way for paying customers

Company celebrates as it completes what is likely the final test before commercial space tourism operations begin.

An image shows the Virgin Galactic rocket plane
A view of Earth from Virgin Galactic's rocket plane as it reaches an altitude of more than 87km (54 miles) during a test flight on May 25, 2023 [Virgin Galactic via AP]

Virgin Galactic has successfully carried out its first spaceflight in nearly two years, the company says, after an “enhancement period” to make safety upgrades to its fleet.

Thursday’s flight was the fifth time the space tourism company had brushed the boundary of space, and it has been billed as the final test before commercial operations can begin in late June with members of the Italian Air Force as the first paying customers.

“Touchdown, VSS Unity!” the company tweeted, referring to the name of the company’s spaceplane. “Our crew and spaceship are back on Earth after landing smoothly at Spaceport America, New Mexico.”

Six of the company’s employees, including two pilots, landed after the short up-and-down flight, which included a few minutes of weightlessness. It took about an hour for the mother ship to carry the spaceplane to an altitude of 13,500 metres (44,500 feet), where it was released and fired its rocket motor to make the final push.

Crew members during the test flight
Virgin Galactic employees make what is expected to be the company’s final test flight on May 25, 2023, before taking paying customers on brief trips to space [Virgin Galactic via AP]

It reached an altitude of 87km (54.2 miles) before gliding back down to the runway, according to the company.

The flight came nearly two years after founder Richard Branson beat fellow billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and rocket company Blue Origin into space. Bezos ended up flying nine days later from West Texas, and Blue Origin has since launched several passenger trips.

Virgin Galactic’s space programme has suffered years of delays and a 2014 accident, in which a pilot died. Federal aviation authorities also banned Virgin Galactic launches after Branson’s flight to investigate a mishap.

The Federal Aviation Administration investigated a problem that caused the rocket ship to veer off course during its descent back to its runway. Virgin Galactic made changes to its carrier plane and the spaceplane. The delay was nearly twice as long as expected, partly due to supply chain issues and labour shortages.

Unlike other companies that use vertical-launch rockets, Virgin Galactic uses a carrier aircraft with two pilots that takes off from a runway, gains high altitude and drops a rocket-powered plane that soars into space before gliding back to Earth.

The total journey time is 90 minutes with passengers experiencing a few minutes of weightlessness in the spaceplane’s cabin.

Virgin Galactic has been working for more than a decade to send paying passengers on short space hops and in 2021 finally won the federal government’s approval.

The initial commercial flight expected this year will include members of the Italian Air Force who will conduct experiments. Next will come customers who purchased tickets years ago for their chance at weightlessness onboard a winged spacecraft that launches from the belly of a plane.

About 800 tickets have been sold over the past decade with the initial batch going for $200,000 each. Tickets now cost $450,000 per person.

Virgin Galactic has reached space five times since 2018 and will be aiming for 400 flights per year from its spaceport in southern New Mexico once it finishes building its next class of rocket-powered planes at a facility in neighbouring Arizona.

Source: News Agencies