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Virgin Galactic announces first fully crewed flight since 2021

Space tourism company Virgin Galactic has announced plans for another test flight ahead of its first commercial mission this summer.

The test flight using its rocket-powered space plane will take place in “late May” and will be the company’s second fully crewed trip since Virgin founder Richard Branson and others tested the hardware in a successful flight in July 2021.

Four Virgin Galactic team members — Beth Moses, Luke Mays, Jamila Gilbert, and Christopher Huie — will board VSS Unity for a memorable trip to the edge of space.

While its space tourism competitor Blue Origin uses a rocket to send a capsule high into the atmosphere, Virgin Galactic uses two aircraft to perform a similar feat.

The first, VMS Eve, carries the VSS Unity space plane and its passengers to an altitude of about 50,000 feet before releasing it. Unity’s rocket engine then fires up, sending it to a peak altitude of about 282,000 feet (53.4 miles/86 km), about 9 miles short of the Kármán line which is generally considered as the edge of space.

The passengers then have several minutes to enjoy the stunning views while floating around the cabin during a short period of weightlessness before Unity glides back to Earth for a runway landing.

Although it’s yet to launch its first commercial flight, Virgin Galactic has already started selling tickets for the one-off ride. It used to cost $250,000 a pop, but in February 2022 it increased the price to an eye-watering $450,000 for an experience that takes a mere 90 minutes from take-off to landing.

The first commercial flight, which Virgin Galactic hopes to operate in two months’ time, will send officers from Italy’s Air Force to the edge of space. In time, the company wants to operate as many as 400 commercial flights a year.

Since its last fully crewed test flight with Branson two years ago, Virgin Galactic has been carrying out work to improve the VMS Eve carrier aircraft.

Blue Origin, on the other hand, has operated six crewed flights since its first one in July 2021, which included Blue Origin owner and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. But in September 2022 the New Shepard rocket that powers the crew capsule toward space suffered a failure. No crew was aboard the capsule on the flight, though reassuringly, the escape system worked properly and the capsule made a successful landing. Blue Origin hasn’t flown since and has spent the time addressing the engine nozzle issue that caused the failure.

Branson and Bezos have faced criticism for wasting huge sums of money on a service that will allow the super-wealthy to burn huge amounts of cash on a short joy ride, but both billionaires insist their respective services will open up space to more individuals and, in the words of Bezos, inspire people to create “amazing things that make life better here on Earth.”

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Trevor Mogg
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