HomeUSAVirgin Galactic Heading Back to Space This Month with 6 on Board

Virgin Galactic Heading Back to Space This Month with 6 on Board

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Virgin Galactic is headed back to space this month with a six-person crew, marking its first flight to suborbit since company founder Sir Richard Branson flew from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico in July 2021.

It’s the last flight planned by Virgin Galactic before launching its long-awaited commercial service, starting in late June, when a crew from the Italian Air Force will fly to space on the six-passenger VSS Unity spaceship to conduct research and training.

This month’s final test flight will include four Virgin Galactic team members seated in the passenger cabin, among them Native New Mexican Jamila Gilbert, a 34-year-old New Mexico State University graduate who grew up in Alamogordo and Las Cruces and joined Virgin Galactic in 2019, said Mike Moses, president of spaceline missions and safety.

“Returning to space is what we have all worked toward,” Moses said in a press release Monday morning announcing the flight. “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.”

The upcoming test will be the first “powered” flight into suborbit since Branson flew in 2021. Following Branson’s flight, the company entered an 18-month hiatus for maintenance upgrades and enhancements to the Unity spaceship and the VMS Eve mothership to improve vehicle durability and reliability before initiating tourist flights for paying passengers. Those modifications included construction of a reinforced pylon on the underbelly of the mothership where the Unity is attached at takeoff from the Spaceport America runway.

Under Virgin Galactic’s flight system, VMS Eve carries the spaceship to about 50,000 feet, at which point Unity breaks away from the mothership and fires up its rocket motors to shoot into suborbit, allowing passengers in the ship’s six-seat cabin to float for a few minutes in microgravity and view the Earth’s curvature before returning to the spaceport.

The company conducted a glide test in late April, whereby the Unity breaks away from Eve and glides back down to ground without igniting its motors. That provided critical performance metrics to validate ship enhancements, paving the way for this month’s powered flight to space, Moses said following last month’s glide flight.

The upcoming powered test aims to evaluate the overall passenger space flight experience from end-to-end and perform a “final assessment” of the full spaceflight system before commercial service begins, said company spokesman Jeff Michael.

Apart from Unity’s pilot and co-pilot, four mission specialists were selected for their “diverse” expertise, each bringing a different skill set to validate the company’s planned passenger training program and the flight experience itself, Michael said.

Jamila Gilbert, for example, is not an engineer like the other three mission specialists. She’s a linguistics, anthropology and studio arts graduate who previously conducted tourist walking tours for “Visit Las Cruces,” giving her a unique perspective similar to what customers will experience on future space flights.

“They’re ‘diverse’ in regard to their individual points of view and disciplines, which allows them to see and experience things differently,” Michael told the Journal. “Jamila Gilbert most clearly represents our customers, most of whom are not engineers. She’s decidedly from the creative side.”

Assuming all goes well, this month’s flight will mark the fifth time Unity has flown to space, although the company did conduct many other flight tests with Unity on at least 20 occasions.

On its prior suborbital flights, the company did fly research payloads for customers who paid for experiments in microgravity. But when the Italian Air Force boards Unity in late June, it will be the first time paying passengers will be seated in the cabin for a trip to space.

Tourist flights for customers, who pay $450,000 for a seat on Unity, are expected to begin this summer, Michael said.

“The initial target is to fly once per month after our first commercial flight in late June,” Michael said. “Following each flight, there’s a two-week period to analyze data, and then two more weeks to prepare the ship to fly again. You can set the flight calendar around that.”

More than 800 passengers with reservations are now on the Virgin Galactic flight list, including many who have waited more than a decade to board the spaceship.

(c) 2023 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)

Visit the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) at www.abqjournal.com

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