Virgin Galactic is poised to enter the realm of space tourism as it successfully completes its final VSS Unity flight test before commencing commercial service. The Unity 25 mission, which aimed to test technical functionality and the overall astronaut experience, reached space at approximately 12:26 PM Eastern time. Notably, this launch marked a significant moment in history as crew member Jamila Gilbert became the first female astronaut from New Mexico, according to Virgin Galactic. Gilbert, along with her fellow crewmates Chris Huie, Luke Mays, and Beth Moses, are all employees of Virgin.
The company has faced multiple delays in conducting this test. The most recent delay was caused by challenges in upgrading the VMS Eve host aircraft, responsible for carrying Unity to an altitude of 50,000 feet. While Virgin Galactic completed an unpowered test flight in late April, the first crewed flight took place in July 2021 with founder Richard Branson, Moses, Sirisha Bandla, and Colin Bennett aboard for Unity 22. Unity 25 represents Virgin Galactic’s fifth spaceflight of any kind.
The success of this test flight holds great significance for Virgin Galactic. The company has incurred losses for several years due to the repeated postponement of its space tourism plans, with a loss of over $500 million in 2022 alone. With the expectation to fly paying customers in late June, Virgin Galactic is counting on the revenue generated from $450,000 ticket sales to recoup its substantial investments. At this stage, the focus shifts from overcoming technological hurdles to finalizing operational details.
While Virgin Galactic trails behind Blue Origin, which has already commenced civilian space launches, it is closer to achieving passenger spaceflights than SpaceX. Although SpaceX announced its lunar tourism plans years ago, it has yet to send a crewed Starship rocket into space. However, this is not a cause for concern for SpaceX, as Virgin Galactic concentrates on suborbital flights that are less ambitious but more affordable. In contrast, SpaceX’s Starship aims to cater to both lunar orbits for tourists and NASA’s Moon landing missions.
As Virgin Galactic inches closer to realizing its space tourism aspirations, the successful Unity 25 test flight signifies a major milestone for the company. The advent of commercial space travel is on the horizon, offering a tantalizing glimpse into a future where private citizens can venture beyond Earth’s atmosphere and experience the wonders of space firsthand.