Billionaire entrepreneur’s space tourism company pulls off high-stakes crewed test flight
By Jackie Wattles, CNN
(CNN Business) — Virgin Galactic — the space tourism company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson — has returned its supersonic plane to the edge of space for the first time since 2021, when Branson made his own journey toward the cosmos.
The company’s space plane, VSS Unity, carried two pilots and a crew of four Virgin Galactic employees on the Thursday test flight, which took off from a runway in New Mexico around 11:15 a.m. ET, according to Virgin Galactic’s Twitter account.
The rocket-powered plane is designed to ride to about 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) above Earth’s surface while attached beneath the wing of a massive, twin-fuselage mothership, dubbed “Eve” by the company. The space plane is designed to then detach from the mothership, fire its rocket engine and swoop straight up with its two pilots at the controls.
Virgin Galactic confirmed just before 12:30 p.m. ET that VSS Unity successfully completed the blast toward space. The space plane then coasted back to a landing back at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.
Flights are designed to reach more than 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) above Earth, into altitudes the United States government recognizes as the boundary of outer space.
VSS Unity’s journey
At the peak of the flight, passengers are expected to have experienced a few minutes of weightlessness and could peer out the plane’s windows at Earth’s curved horizon and the blackness of outer space. From takeoff to landing, the missions typically last under two hours.
Company officials hope this will be the final test run before Virgin Galactic can open up rides to paying customers in late June —after years of promises, missed deadlines, and Branson selling off a huge chunk of his original stake in the company. However, if the test flight encountered major issues on Thursday, the problems could throw Virgin Galactic’s future into question or lead to more lengthy delays.
The company has been here before. Virgin Galactic had appeared poised to begin commercial operations after it launched Branson to the edge of space alongside three crewmates in July 2021, a flight that came less than two weeks before Branson’s rival Jeff Bezos conducted his own flight to the edge of space. Branson denied he had been racing with Bezos.
But the US Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial rocket launches, later opened an investigation into Branson’s flight when it was revealed that the space plane veered off course during the high-profile flight. That investigation concluded in September 2021 and gave Virgin Galactic the all-clear for more flights. But the company then announced it was delaying the start of commercial services, citing unrelated technology upgrades.
The six people on Thursday’s test mission included pilots CJ Sturckow and Mike Masucci, as well as Virgin Galactic employees Jamila Gilbert, a New Mexican native who works in the company’s internal communications; Christopher Huie, a flight sciences engineer and the son of Jamaican immigrants; Luke Mays, an astronaut instructor and former NASA employee; and Beth Moses, the company’s head of astronaut training, who has joined two prior flights.
“The experience was absolutely phenomenal,” Huie told CNN in an interview Thursday afternoon. “I really couldn’t have felt more prepared. I went into the flight feeling very confident. None of my expectations were met because this experience is just so out of this world — to use a very corny pun — but there’s really nothing like it. It was exhilarating.”
Huie added that, to his knowledge, the flight profile and vehicle performance were spot-on for this mission.
“I think that people are going to just take this and have it be the best day of their lives,” Gilbert added, referring to Virgin Galactic’s future customers. “That is what it was for me.”
Virgin Galactic’s path to commercial flights
Branson founded Galactic in 2004, around the same time Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, two other deep-pocketed entrepreneurs, established space companies of their own.
Galactic’s core technology is the brainchild of a company called Scaled Composites, which is now owned by Northrop Grumman. In 2004, their SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize, a cash-prize competition meant to spur innovation by making two crewed trips to space within two weeks.
Branson then bought the technology in an effort to develop it for commercial use, promising paying customers a chance to take the supersonic space plane to the edge of space. The SpaceShipOne technology was parlayed into a larger space plane design, called SpaceShipTwo, which Virgin Galactic still flies today.
Tragedy struck the company in 2014 when a copilot was killed during a test flight. At the time, tests were still being carried out by Scaled Composites. But the incident left the future of Virgin Galactic in doubt.
The company ultimately bounced back, however, after bringing testing operations in-house and completing several test flights that successfully brushed the edge of space.
Still, deadlines have continually passed for the company’s expected debut of regular commercial flights with paying customers on board. At one point in early 2022, Virgin Galactic was targeting last October for its first commercial missions. At the time the company went public in 2019, it had also been touting plans to start commercial service in 2020.
The future of Virgin Galactic and space tourism
The company has also been losing money for years, burning through funds as it attempts to finish its test flights and begin welcoming customers — some of whom paid for their tickets more than a decade ago.
The company has sold about 800 tickets total, including 600 at prices ranging from $200,000 to $250,000 and 200 more at $450,000, which is the current ticket price.
Virgin Galactic is competing directly with Bezos’ Blue Origin in the suborbital space tourism business. Since Bezos’ flight in July 2021, the company has since completed five additional crewed flights to space. Blue Origin’s suborbital space tourism operations, however, have been on pause since an uncrewed flight of its New Shepard rocket exploded in September 2022.
Virgin Orbit, a sister company to Virgin Galactic that is focused on launching satellites to space on a small rocket, filed for bankruptcy in April. This week, the company announced it would sell off Virgin Orbit’s assets to several other commercial space companies.
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