Virgin Galactic Successfully Launches Unity 22 Mission

Despite a weather-induced delay, Virgin Galactic has successfully launched its Unity 22 mission from Spaceport America in New Mexico. This flight differs from the VSS Unity’s previous missions as it is the first to be fully crewed, with mission specialists onboard as well as pilots. Among its six-person crew is Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson.

Virgin Galactic VMS Eve
VSS Unity is an air-launched spacecraft, hence it is flown to altitude by VMS Eve. Photo: Virgin Galactic

A delayed launch

While Virgin Galactic has now successfully launched its ‘Unity 22‘ mission, weather conditions forced it to commence the program around 90 minutes late. The company had initially targeted 07:00 local time for the mission’s launch from Spaceport America. This facility is located near the brilliantly named city of Truth or Consequences in New Mexico.

However, as seen in the tweet above, the company explained around two hours before the planned launch time that it would have to delay the procedure. It cited overnight weather as the reason for the holdup, which prevented preparations from proceeding punctually.

In the end, VSS Unity, the sub-orbital spacecraft and subject of the mission, took to the skies at 08:40 local time. Around 500,000 viewers watched a live stream on Virgin Galactic’s YouTube channel alone, although this didn’t appear to show the takeoff itself.

It was carried to its launch altitude by a mothership named VMS Eve, after Branson’s mother. It released from the mothership at 09:25 local time and reached Mach 3 within a minute. At this point, Virgin Galactic’s YouTube live stream had hit nearly 800,000 viewers. Unity safely touched down at 09:40 local time, 15 minutes after its release.

Virgin Galactic VSS Unity
VSS Unity has achieved speeds in excess of Mach 3 in its flights to date. Photo: Virgin Galactic

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The first flight of its kind

While the VSS Unity has operated several missions before, this particular flight is its first one with a full six-person crew. For Virgin Galactic, it represents the next step towards making the dream of commercial space tourism a dream for paying customers. The company is using its mission specialists to assess the suitability of the spacecraft for passengers.

Each of these four crew members will evaluate different aspects, in order to gain the most complete picture possible. The flight will also allow Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, serving as one of the mission specialists, to take to space before fellow billionaire space magnate Elon Musk. Branson relishes space tourism, and states that:

We are at the vanguard of a new industry determined to pioneer twenty-first-century spacecraft, which will open space to everybody – and change the world for good.”

Spaceport America Gateway Terminal
The ‘Gateway’ terminal at Spaceport America. Photo: Land Rover MENA via Wikimedia Commons

Passenger services to begin next year

If the Unity 22 mission proves a success in demonstrating the spacecraft’s suitability for commercial use, the dream of passenger-carrying space flights will be one step closer to reality. Virgin Galactic explains on its website that “two additional test flights are planned before the company expects to commence commercial service in 2022.”

The low capacity and frequency of space tourism flights will limit the number of people who can partake in them. This is without even considering the cost of such a voyage, with Business Insider reporting that tickets will cost $250,000. Prospective passengers can now register their interest online, with a booking window set to open later this year.

Have you been watching Unity 22’s launch? What are your thoughts on the future of space tourism? Let us know your opinions in the comments.