WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic conducted its first suborbital mission of 2024 on Jan. 26 as the company prepares end flights of its current spaceplane.
The VSS Unity spaceplane, attached the VMS Eve mothership aircraft, took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico at 12 p.m. Eastern. Unity separated about 45 minutes later, igniting its hybrid rocket engine. The vehicle reached a peak altitude of 88.8 kilometers before gliding back to a runway landing at the spaceport at 12:56 p.m. Eastern, according to data provided by the company
The flight, called Galactic 06 by Virgin Galactic, carried four customers for the first time, along with its two pilots. Previous commercial flights had three customers on board along with a Virgin Galactic astronaut trainer.
As with some recent flights, Virgin Galactic disclosed the identities of the four private astronauts only after the end of the mission. They are Americans Neil Kornswiet and Robie Vaughn, Ukrainian-American Lina Borozdina and Austrian Franz Haider. Unity was commanded by C.J. Sturckow with Nicola Pecile as pilot.
Virgin Galactic also did not provide a webcast of the launch, as on some previous flights, instead providing updates on social media. Those updates significantly lagged behind the timing of flight activities: the post on X (formerly Twitter) announcing the landing of Unity at the conclusion was published more than 35 minutes after landing.
“The success of Galactic 06 and the company’s other commercial spaceflights in recent months only increases our confidence in the repeatability of our product and our ability to deliver a superlative experience to our customers,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in a statement.
The flight was the first since a dedicated research flight, Galactic 05, Nov. 2. That flight was the sixth in less than six months for the vehicle, but Virgin Galactic said it would pause flights until January for an annual maintenance period.
Just a week after Galactic 05, though, Virgin Galactic announced it would soon wind down flights of VSS Unity, citing the need to conserve its cash reserves for development of its next-generation Delta class of suborbital vehicles. Those future vehicles are intended to fly more frequently and at lower costs than Unity.
Virgin Galactic said then that, after Galactic 06, it would fly Unity again on Galactic 07 in the second quarter of the year and, perhaps, a Galactic 08 mission in mid-2024. The company then plans to retire VSS Unity and shift resources into Delta-class vehicle development.
“With the production of our next-generation Delta-class ships underway, we look forward to expanding our flight capacity with testing expected to start next year and commercial service in 2026,” Colglazier said in the statement.
The company confirmed in the statement that Galactic 07 will take place in the second quarter and fly a researcher along with private astronauts. It did not provide other details about the flight.