VSS Unity conducts first powered flight since Branson’s trip in 2021

by Justin Davenport

After a nearly two-year pause in flights, starting after a deviation from controlled airspace during Sir Richard Branson’s flight in July 2021, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity made its first powered flight since the eventful Unity 22 mission.

The Unity 25 mission, like Unity 22, had a full crew complement of six. Two pilots and four Virgin Galactic employees were on board. The employees tested out the customer experience prior to the beginning of commercial operations.

VSS Unity, slung underneath the VMS Eve White Knight Two mothership, took off from the Spaceport America complex near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, Thursday. After takeoff, VMS Eve climbed to an altitude of approximately 14,325 meters (47,000 feet) before releasing VSS Unity.

Shortly after release, VSS Unity ignited its hybrid rocket engine for around 60 seconds. Once the engine, using liquid nitrous oxide and solid rubber, was at full power, Unity initiated a climb which, taking it to an altitude of over 80 kilometers, which is at the edge of space.

Under some definitions, notably one promulgated by noted astronomer and astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, another one established by the US Air Force during the Cold War, and one established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) more recently, space begins at 80 kilometers.

The environment at the unofficial “McDowell Line” is little different from the space environment at the official internationally recognized “Karman Line” of 100 kilometers. As Jonathan McDowell stated on an NSF Live episode, “the effective Karman line, the point of which aerodynamics stops winning against gravity, is about 80 kilometers.”

Unity spent about five minutes above this line, and the passengers were able to move around the cabin to analyze the experience. The spacecraft began its descent with its tail booms having been extended into a “feathered” position for reentry.

The spacecraft extended its tail booms back into their usual position when it descends into thicker atmospheric conditions, before gliding to a touchdown on Spaceport America’s 3,650-meter (12,000-foot) runway.

Unity 25 crewmembers Mike Masucci and Beth Moses seen with Dave Mackay during the VF-01 mission. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Unity 25 commander Mike “Sooch” Masucci was making his third spaceflight, as defined by the “McDowell Line”. Masucci, a veteran reconnaissance aircraft and test pilot, has extensive experience flying the VSS Unity and VMS Eve. His first spaceflight was the VF-01 flight on Feb. 22, 2019, and his second spaceflight was the aforementioned Unity 22 mission.

Pilot CJ Sturckow, a former NASA Space Shuttle astronaut, was making his sixth spaceflight as per the US definition. He is a veteran of four Shuttle missions, including the first flight to assemble the International Space Station. All four of his Shuttle flights, STS-88, STS-105, STS-117, and STS-128, were flown to the Station. In addition, his Shuttle experience was obtained on three different orbiters, Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour.

After joining Virgin Galactic, Sturckow made his first spaceflight for the company on VSS Unity flight VP-03, along with flight test director Mark Stucky. This flight, on Dec. 13, 2018, was also Virgin Galactic’s first spaceflight, and the first spaceflight over 80 km carrying people from US soil since STS-135. However, Unity’s flight did not go above the Karman line at 100 km, nor did it attain orbit, as the spacecraft is incapable of orbital velocity.

Sturckow’s next spaceflight was aboard the Unity 21 flight on May 22, 2021. This flight, the first human spaceflight to launch from Spaceport America, occurred after the same crew, Sturckow and Dave Mackay, guided Unity to a safe landing after an abort just after ignition during a spaceflight attempt on Dec. 12, 2020.

The four Virgin Galactic employees flying in the cabin during Unity 25. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Out of the four Virgin Galactic employees flying as passengers on Unity 25, Beth Moses is the only one who has spaceflight experience. Moses, Virgin Galactic’s lead astronaut trainer, made her first spaceflight on the Unity VF-01 flight and became the first woman to earn commercial astronaut status.

She also became the first passenger to unstrap and float in the cabin during this flight, as part of analyzing the spaceflight experience. Moses’ second flight was aboard the Unity 22 mission with Sir Richard Branson on board, and she again analyzed the passenger experience, which includes being able to look at Earth and space through 17 windows.

Jamila Gilbert, a native of New Mexico and a graduate of New Mexico State University in her hometown of Las Cruces, joined Virgin Galactic in 2019. She oversees an internal communications team.

Gilbert does not have a technical background, but she has worked in marketing and real estate. She is an artist and has studied linguistics along with anthropology. She joins the first 100 women in space and also the 16th Hispanic to conduct a spaceflight.

Christopher Huie joined Virgin Galactic in 2016 as a flight sciences engineer. He has served as the senior engineer for loads, and has a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Maryland.

Huie is also the co-founder of the company’s black leaders in aerospace scholarship and training program and will become the 19th black person to fly in space.

Luke Mays, a former NASA astronaut trainer, joined Virgin Galactic this year. Mays has 25 years of aerospace experience, including developing scalable training programs at NASA. He has trained astronauts and flight controllers and has experience working with international candidates.

Mays holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas and a master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Colorado.

If Unity 25 flies within the next few days, the crew will briefly join the ranks of human beings living at over 80 km altitude. For around five minutes, they will join the crews of the ISS Crew-6, Ax-2, Soyuz MS-22/23, and Shenzhou-15, making for a total of 20 people in space, under the US definition.

The Unity 25 flight follows the Unity 24 atmospheric glide test mission last month. On April 26, VMS Eve released Unity from 14,325 m (47,000 ft.), and Unity glided to a landing at Spaceport America. This flight, piloted by CJ Sturckow and Nicola Pecile, tested a new mothership pylon as well as handling following modifications that had been made during the extended pause in flight activities.

VSS Unity in space during the Unity 22 flight in July 2021. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

After the Unity 22 flight, the FAA ordered an investigation into a deviation from controlled airspace lasting one minute and 41 seconds during the mission. The spacecraft was grounded until the FAA completed its investigation in September 2021, and Virgin Galactic’s safety standards were publicly criticized by Mark Stucky in a series of tweets after his dismissal from the company.

Although the FAA had cleared Virgin Galactic to resume flights, the next flight, involving the Italian Air Force, was initially delayed until that October. The reason given was due to a third-party supplier flagging a defective flight control actuator component.

However, an issue with the strength margins of materials used to modify joints in Virgin Galactic’s vehicles caused the company to ground Unity and VMS Eve for an extended period. This time, initially estimated to last eight to 10 months, was used to modify and refurbish the spacecraft and mothership.

These improvements are meant to increase durability, reduce maintenance requirements, and enhance the vehicles’ reliability. During this time, Virgin Galactic also rebranded itself with a new corporate image, using a new logo, a new typeface, and a purple color gradient. This image is now reflected in the VMS Eve mothership and the VSS Unity spacecraft.

VMS Eve and VSS Unity take off on the Unity 24 unpowered glide flight. Note the new logo and typeface on the bottom of Unity. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic also announced that a new factory in Arizona, located near the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, would build the “delta class” spaceships. The delta class is meant to be capable of weekly flights and is expected to start revenue-generating payload flights in late 2025.

The VSS Imagine, similar to Unity but an improved variant known as “SpaceShip III,” has been built but is not expected to fly this year. VSS Imagine’s schedule has been affected by the company’s need to prioritize returning Unity to service, as well as to start design work on the delta class.

Unity 25 is a critically important return to flight for Virgin Galactic, which reported a net loss of $159 million during the first quarter of 2023. The company does have cash, cash equivalents, and marketable securities totaling $874 million as of the end of the first quarter, but profitability is key to Virgin Galactic’s long-term prospects.

If Unity 25 goes as planned, the next flight will start the company’s commercial research service with the long-delayed Italian Air Force flight. This flight, known as Galactic 01, is currently scheduled for late June. Regular commercial spaceflights are expected to start afterward, 12 years after commercial flights of SpaceShip Two were projected to start in 2011.

(Lead image: VSS Unity release and launch. Credit: Jack Beyer)

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