June 16, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA
Space

Virgin Galactic makes last commercial suborbital spaceflight VSS Unity

Updated at 6:15 pm ET with comments from the post-flight press conference.

SPACEPORT AMERICA, NM – Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spaceplane carried out its final commercial mission on June 8, carrying a Turkish researcher and three private astronauts on a suborbital spaceflight.

VSS Unity, attached to its VMS Eve mothership, lifted off from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico at 10:31 a.m. Eastern Time. Unity released from Eve at 11:26 a.m. Eastern Time, flying its typical suborbital trajectory to an altitude of 87.5 kilometers before gliding and landing back at the spaceport at 11:41 a.m. Eastern Time.

Galactic 07 featured a Turkish research astronaut, Tuva Atasever. His flight was organized through Axiom Space, on which another Turkish astronaut, Alper Gezeravcı, flew. on the private Ax-3 astronaut mission to the International Space Station in January. Atasever was the support for that mission.

Atasever planned to conduct seven experiments during the suborbital flight. “The experimental part of the flight was a great success,” he said at a news conference after the flight. Those experiments included sensors to monitor brain activity, radiation dosimeters, and insulin pens designed to operate in microgravity. He noted that the brain activity experiment included tests to try to capture any changes in brain activity related to the perspective-altering “overview effect” caused by viewing Earth from space.

He said testing of the insulin pens, an experiment developed by Axiom Space, during tests in the week before the flight revealed they were not working as expected. “We repeated, changed a couple of things and this time it worked perfectly in microgravity.”

The vehicle also carried a rack with automated payloads from Purdue University to study propellant sloshing in microgravity and from the University of California Berkeley to test 3D printing. Those payloads flew through NASA's Flight Opportunities program.

The other three customers were private astronauts, whose identities were revealed by Virgin Galactic only after the vehicle landed. they were

  • Andy Sadhwani, principal propulsion engineer at SpaceX who previously conducted research at NASA and Stanford University;
  • Irving Pergament, New York real estate developer and private pilot; and
  • Giorgio Manenti, Italian investment manager living in London.

Unity was commanded by Nicola Pecile, making its fourth flight, with Jameel Janjua, on his first space flight, as pilot.

Galactic group photo 07
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson (left) and company CEO Michael Colglazier (right) with Galactic 07 astronauts Andy Sadhwani, Irving Pergament, Giorgio Manenti and Tuva Atasever. Credit: Space News/Jeff Foust

This was the seventh commercial flight of VSS Unity and the twelfthth flight in general. It will also be the last for VSS Unity, the second SpaceShipTwo vehicle built for Virgin Galactic, as the company shifts its focus to completing work on the new series of Delta vehicles.

“This is the final flight of Unity, but it's not the end of the story,” Mike Moses, president of the Virgin Galactic space line, told reporters at the spaceport on June 7. “A whole new chapter is about to begin with us.”

The company announced last November would retire Unity in mid-2024 So it could conserve its cash, about $1 billion at the time, to complete work on the Delta class of vehicles, which promise much higher air fares and lower operating costs needed to put the company out of business.

The Delta-class vehicle will look “exactly the same” as Unity, Moses said. “But the real change is what's under the hood, so to speak, in how it's designed, how it's built and how it's operated.”

“We want to build on all the maturation work that has been done on the Unity spacecraft for Delta,” said Steve Justice, senior vice president of engineering and space programs at Virgin Galactic. “We only want to invent what we really need to invent.”

That invention primarily involves the use of different composite materials and manufacturing techniques to enable the production of vehicles at higher rates and lower costs. There is also a greater reliance on contractors to build key elements of the vehicle, which Virgin Galactic will then assemble at a new facility in Mesa, Arizona, near Phoenix.

Moses said components for the first two Delta-class vehicles will begin arriving at the Arizona facility late this year and early next year, where Virgin will perform final assembly and ground testing. The company plans to begin flight testing in late 2025 and begin commercial service in 2026.

“Unity blazed trails and showed what is possible,” he said. “Delta is going to be revolutionary.”

Galactic reflections07
VSS Unity, VMS Eve and the crowd that attended Galactic Flight 07 were reflected in the windows of Spaceport America's main terminal building. Credit: Space News/Jeff Foust

“It's a little sad to see Unity fly on its last commercial flight,” Pecile acknowledged in remarks after landing, noting that this flight took place almost exactly 20 years after Unity's predecessor, SpaceShipOne, made its first flight. “But our efforts are really working in the next generation.”

Galactic 07 was attended by Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, who flew on Unity in July 2021. He said after the flight that he was still committed to the company's vision of allowing “thousands and thousands of people” to experience spaceflight.

“That is the goal of Virgin Galactic. Other people are aiming to go to Mars, which is equally absolutely extraordinary,” she stated. “But what we want to do is allow many people to experience what our astronauts experienced today.”

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