Blue Origin rival Virgin Galactic announces return to space with restart of its commercial flights

SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity and mothership separate as they fly way above Spaceport America in 2021
SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity and mothership separate as they fly way above Spaceport America in 2021   -  Copyright  PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP
By Luke Hurst  with AFP

Nearly two years since its only manned spaceflight, Virgin Galactic is planning to return to space with its first commercial flight in June.

Virgin Galactic has announced it will begin commercial space flights at the end of June, years after its one and only manned space flight.

The company flew two pilots and four passengers to suborbital space in July 2021, with Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson as one of the passengers.

Now the space tourism company has revealed it will return to space with a mission at the end of May carrying four of the company’s employees, before commercial flights begin in June.

The Unity 25 mission will take off from Spaceport America in New Mexico, to “validate the astronaut experience ahead of Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight, Galactic 01, which is planned for late June,” the company said in a statement.

Unlike conventional rocket launches into space, Virgin Galactic’s method involves a huge carrier aircraft taking off from a conventional runway, before dropping off the spacecraft at high altitude.

From there, the spacecraft fires up its engines until it reaches an altitude of more than 80 km - the height which the US considers to be the boundary with space. After a few minutes of weightlessness at that altitude, the craft is then guided back to the same runway it was launched from for landing.

Competition with Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin

"Returning to space is what we have all worked towards," said Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic’s President of Spaceline Missions and Safety.

"Our mission specialists were selected for their diverse expertise, and they couldn’t be better suited to validate the astronaut training program and overall experience. After this flight we will begin flying our customers to space".

Virgin Galactic's space programme has suffered years of delays, including a 2014 accident that killed a pilot.

A follow-up test flight was scheduled following the successful flight which had Branson on board, but the Unity 23 flight was cancelled after Virgin Galactic said a third-party supplier had flagged a potential manufacturing defect in an important component.

For those interested in travelling to the edge of space, tickets are available for $450,000 (€411,000) apiece, with an initial deposit of $150,000 (€137,000).

Virgin Galactic is competing with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' company, Blue Origin, which also offers short suborbital flights and has already sent 32 people into space.

Blue Origin expects to return its New Shepard rocket to flight by the end of 2023 after the vehicle suffered a mid-flight failure in September.

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