Updated at 3 p.m. Eastern with post-flight statement.
WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle flew to space for the first time in nearly two years May 25 on what the company projected to be the vehicle’s final test flight before commencing commercial operations.
Virgin Galactic’s “mothership” aircraft, VMS Eve, took off from the runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico at 11:15 a.m. Eastern. The takeoff occurred more than an hour behind a schedule provided by the company the day before, but the company did not disclose the reason for the delay.
Virgin Galactic released VSS Unity at 12:23 p.m. Eastern. The spaceplane appeared to perform a nominal burn of its hybrid rocket engine before descending to a runway landing back at Spaceport America nearly 15 minutes later. Virgin Galactic said the vehicle reached a peak altitude of 87.2 kilometers — above the 50-mile altitude used by U.S. government agencies for awarding astronaut wings, but below the 100-kilometer Kármán line — and top speed of Mach 2.94.
The flight, called Unity 25 by the company, was the first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo since July 2021, when the vehicle flew six people, including company founder Richard Branson. Both Unity and Eve went into extended maintenance periods after that flight and resumed test flights earlier this year, with Unity making a glide flight April 26.
“The ‘Unity 25’ mission was a fantastic achievement for everyone at Virgin Galactic,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic. “Witnessing our inspiring crew’s pure joy upon landing, I have complete confidence in the unique astronaut experience we have built for our customers.”
Unity 25 was commanded by Mike Masucci with CJ Sturckow as pilot. Four company employees flew as mission specialists on the vehicle to test the flight experience ahead of commercial flights: Jamila Gilbert, Christopher Huie, Luke Mays and Beth Moses. The flight was the first trip to space for Gilbert, Huie and Mays, and the third for Moses and Masucci. Sturckow, a former NASA astronaut, flew on four shuttle missions, with Unity 25 his third suborbital flight.
“Looking down at our beautiful planet from space, something that so few humans have experienced, was such a humbling, awe-inspiring, and reverent experience,” said Huie in a company statement. “As one of the first 20 Black people who have gone to space, I hope that I can inspire the next generation of astronauts who look like me to set their goals high and break down the mental and institutional barriers that have held people of color back.
“It is hard to put into words what this experience was like, but I’m sure I’ll spend the rest of my life trying.” said Gilbert.
The company did not host media for the launch at Spaceport America or provide a livestream of the mission, instead giving limited updates on social media. That stood in stark contrast to the previous suborbital flight of the vehicle in July 2021, with live broadcasts of the flight and large crowds of media and invited guests at the spaceport to witness the event.
It also was a different approach from the other provider of crewed suborbital launches, Blue Origin. That company has webcasted all of its crewed New Shepard launches as well as many of its uncrewed launches. That included the most recent New Shepard launch in September 2022, a payload-only mission that suffered a failure of its main engine. The crew capsule successfully separated and parachuted to a safe landing, which the company broadcast.
Virgin Galactic said before the flight that Unity 25 would be its final test before beginning commercial service. Its first commercial flight, called “Galactic 01”, is scheduled for as soon as late June carrying three mission specialists on a dedicated research flight for the Italian Air Force. Colglazier, in the post-flight statement, confirmed that schedule for Galactic 01.
Company executives said on a May 9 earnings call that it planned to fly Unity on “regular intervals” after Galactic 01, primarily carrying private astronauts.