Final Virgin Galactic test flight paves way for paying customers

The company is celebrating as it likely completes the final test before commercial space tourism operations begin.

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

Thursday’s flight marked the fifth time the space tourism company had crossed the frontier of space, and it has been billed as the final test before commercial operations can begin at the end of June with members of the Italian Air Force as the first paying customers.

“Touchdown, VSS Unit!” the company tweeted, referring to the name of the company’s space plane. “Our crew and spacecraft are back on Earth after a smooth landing at Spaceport America, New Mexico.”

Six company 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 mothership to raise the spaceplane to an altitude of 13,500 meters (44,500 feet), where it was released and fired its rocket engine to make the final push.

Virgin Galactic employees are expected to make the company’s final test flight on May 25, 2023, before taking paying customers on short trips to space [Virgin Galactic via AP]

According to the company, it reached an altitude of 87 km (54.2 mi) before sliding back down to the runway.

The flight came nearly two years after founder Richard Branson blasted fellow billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and rocket company Blue Origin into space. Bezos eventually flew from West Texas nine days later, and Blue Origin has since launched several passenger tours.

Virgin Galactic’s space program has suffered years of delays and an accident in 2014 that killed a pilot. Federal aviation authorities also banned Virgin Galactic launches after Branson’s flight to investigate an accident.

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

Unlike other companies that use vertical-launch rockets, Virgin Galactic uses a two-pilot aircraft carrier that takes off from a runway, reaches great heights, and drops a rocket-powered aircraft that floats into space before gliding back to Earth.

Total travel time is 90 minutes with passengers experiencing a few minutes of weightlessness in the spaceplane cabin.

Virgin Galactic has been working for more than a decade to send paying passengers on short space jumps and finally received federal approval in 2021.

Members of the Italian Air Force will conduct experiments on the first commercial flight expected this year. Next, customers who bought tickets years ago for their chance at weightlessness come aboard a winged spacecraft launched from the belly of an aircraft.

About 800 tickets have been sold in the past ten years, with the first batch costing $200,000 each. Tickets now cost $450,000 per person.

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