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Virgin Galactic Returns to Space With Crewed Mission 

By Rachel Jewett | May 25, 2023

A view of the VSS Unity during the Unity 25 mission on May 25. Photo: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s space tourism company, returned to flight on Thursday with a successful crewed mission to the edge of space. The mission — Unity 25 — was staffed with all Virgin Galactic specialists, and is the company’s final test of its full spaceflight system and experience before it plans to enter commercial service later next month. 

Notably, the mission took place just as Virgin Orbit is shutting down. The smallsat launcher announced this week it is selling factories and equipment to Rocket Lab, Launcher, and Stratolaunch to end its bankruptcy proceedings. Virgin Orbit is a separate company from Virgin Galactic, and it was spun out Virgin Galactic in 2017. Both were founded by billionaire-turned space investor Richard Branson.  

Virgin Galactic did not livestream the test, but reported the flight was successful, with both carrier aircraft VMS Eve and suborbital plane VSS Unity. The mission took off at 9:15 a.m. MT from Spaceport America, New Mexico. VSM Eve climbed to an altitude of 44,500 feet before releasing suborbital plane VSS Unity. 

Virgin Galactic reported that VSS Unity reached an apogee of 54.2 miles (87 km) and top speed of Mach 2.94. The plane landed at 10:37 a.m. MT. The company said the mission met the objectives of assessing the vehicles ahead of commercial operations, and evaluating the astronaut training and flight experience. Branson attended Thursday’s flight. 

This was Virgin Galactic’s first space flight in nearly two years, after it flew Branson to space in July 2021 in a pre-commercial test flight. The company also performed a glide flight of VSS Unity in April, which did not go to space. 

“Witnessing our inspiring crew’s pure joy upon landing, I have complete confidence in the unique astronaut experience we have built for our customers,” CEO and former Disney exec Michael Colglazier commented. “Our teams now begin post-flight analysis as well as preparation for Galactic 01, our commercial research mission, planned for late June.”