Virgin Galactic is just weeks away from next astronaut test flight, eyes space tourist flights soon

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity during a free flight in Earth's atmosphere on April 26, 2023.
Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity suborbital space plane conducts a free flight in Earth's atmosphere on April 26, 2023. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic will fly to space for the first time in nearly two years later this month, if all goes according to plan.

The company announced today (May 8) that it's targeting late May for Unity 25, its fifth-ever spaceflight and first since July 2021, when Virgin Group founder Richard Branson went aloft with three other passengers.

Like Virgin Galactic's four previous spaceflights, the coming mission will be a test — but it's expected to be the last such trial.

"Unity 25 is the final assessment of the full spaceflight system and astronaut experience before commercial service opens in late June," Virgin Galactic wrote in an update on Monday.

Related: Virgin Galactic's carrier plane flies back to New Mexico spaceport

Virgin Galactic flies people on brief trips to suborbital space using two vehicles, a piloted space plane named VSS Unity and a carrier plane known as VMS Eve. 

Eve hauls Unity to an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), then drops the space plane, which makes its own way to suborbital space. Passengers aboard Unity experience a few minutes of weightlessness and get to see Earth against the blackness of space before the vehicle comes back to Earth for a runway landing.

Unity 25 is so named because it will be the 25th flight of any type (including "glide flights" in Earth's atmosphere) for the space plane. The mission will take off from Spaceport America in New Mexico, Virgin Galactic's commercial-operations hub. 

The flight will send four Virgin Galactic employees up in the space plane's cabin: Jamila Gilbert, Christopher Huie, Luke Mays and Beth Moses. Mike Masucci and C.J. Sturckow will pilot Unity.

Moses is Virgin Galactic's chief astronaut instructor. She has already flown on two previous spaceflights with the company. The other three passengers are all spaceflight rookies. You can learn more about them via Virgin Galactic here.

After Branson's 2021 flight, Virgin Galactic grounded VSS Unity and VMS Eve to maintain and upgrade both vehicles at the company's facilities in Mojave, California. That work included replacing Eve's pylon, the spot between the plane's twin fuselages where Unity attaches.

Virgin Galactic has since been getting both revamped vehicles up to speed. The company performed a "glide flight" in Earth's atmosphere with Unity late last month, for example. 

Virgin Galactic's main competitor in the suborbital tourism industry, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, has experienced delays of its own lately. Blue Origin's New Shepard vehicle hasn't flown since September 2022, when it experienced an anomaly on an uncrewed research-oriented flight.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.