On Saturday Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft flew above 80 km for the third time, completing a much-anticipated return to space following more than two years of downtime. The flight, which crested at an altitude of 89.2 km, was piloted by CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay.
“We will immediately begin processing the data gained from this successful test flight, and we look forward to sharing news on our next planned milestone,” said Michael Colglazier, chief executive officer of Virgin Galactic, after the mission.
The flight was significant for Virgin Galactic, as the last time VSS Unity successfully carried out a powered spaceflight came in February 2019. Since that time the company has undertaken a lot of work to prepare for commercial flights on its suborbital space plane. This includes moving its flight operations to New Mexico and at least beginning to upgrade the interior of its cabin for tourist flights. Although Virgin Galactic has not released photos of the spacecraft’s interior, some changes can be seen here.
But Virgin Galactic has also had to deal with a number of technical issues over the last 27 months. The company had to fix a gapping issue with the spacecraft’s structure after the February 2019 flight, as revealed in the book Test Gods. Then, during the company’s first spaceflight attempt from New Mexico in December 2020, radio interference prevented VSS Unity‘s motor from igniting. Since then, Virgin engineers have had to fix that, as well as perform maintenance on the vehicle’s carrier aircraft, VMS Eve.
However, with Saturday’s flight, Virgin Galactic appears to have put those issues behind it. Not only did the company make its first long-awaited flight from New Mexico’s Spaceport America, it also carried research payloads for NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. The performance by both the spacecraft and aircraft were described as flawless.
Probably the biggest question for Virgin looking forward is whether it can sustain the kind of cadence needed to become a profitable company. After two flights in late 2018 and early 2019, this was only the third flight of VSS Unity. This is a rate of one flight about every 300 days.
As it seeks to ramp up commercial activity, the company has set a goal of 400 spaceflights per year, across multiple vehicles, from Spaceport America. The company lost $130 million in the first quarter of 2021, and it needs to reach a high cadence of flights to become profitable.
Transitioning from development to operations is always challenging, and this is especially true for a vehicle that has been in development for nearly two decades. Now that Virgin Galactic has returned VSS Unity to flight, its big challenge will come from flying more frequently and offering safe, routine access to space. For its paying customers, those space tourism flights are unlikely to begin before early next year.
The message after Saturday’s flight is a hopeful one that such a future may yet be possible.