Virgin Galactic will launch its first spaceflight in two years on its reusable space plane Unity on Thursday (May 25), but exactly when the launch takes place will depend on what time its carrier plane takes off.
The suborbital spaceflight company's Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Unity will launch a crew of eight to suborbital space and back from its Gateway facility at Spaceport America in New Mexico in a test designed to set the stage for regular commercial spaceflights to come. The Unity 25 test flight, Virgin Galactic's first spaceflight since its billionaire founder Sir Richard Branson and a crew flew aboard the Unity 22 mission in July 2021, is the last verification flight before the company's Galactic 1 commercial mission in June, the company has said.
"Unity 25 is the final assessment of the full spaceflight system and astronaut experience before commercial service opens in late June," Virgin Galactic said in a statement. The flight will launch the Unity SpaceShipTwo space plane from the air using its carrier plane, the Virgin Mother Ship Eve. Here's when and how the mission will take place.
What time is Virgin Galactic's Unity 25 suborbital launch?
Virgin Galactic officials are targeting a takeoff time of 8 a.m. Mountain Time (10 a.m. EDT or 1400 GMT) on May 25 from Spaceport America for the Unity 25 mission. That is when we expect the company's WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane, called Eve, to take off from Spaceport America and begin its ascent to launch altitude.
That takeoff time could change, as Virgin Galactic has said it is only when the window will open to start the flight. Virgin Galactic has a 9-hour window for Unity 25 operations on May 23, according to an FAA Notice To Airmen warning (NOTAM) for spacecraft recovery operations that begins at 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. EDT (1400-2300 GMT). It repeats on Friday, May 26, for the same hours, suggesting Virgin Galactic has at least one backup day for the flight.
Can I watch Virgin Galactic's Unity 25 spaceflight?
Not at this time. Virgin Galactic has not announced any plans for a public webcast or livestream and members of the media are not expected to be on hand to broadcast live views of the launch, according to a company representative.
It's also unclear how much information Virgin Galactic will share in real time for the mission. In the past, Virgin Galactic has posted images of preflight, takeoff, mid-air launch and landing. According to SpaceNews reporter Jeff Foust, Virgin Galactic is expected to share some updates on Twitter as in the past. You can follow that at @VirginGalactic on Twitter.
However, a Virgin Galactic spokesperson did tell Space.com that the company plans to release details of the test fight, including images and video, after the flight. So we'll have to stay tuned for that.
If this test flight goes well, Virgin Galactic is expected to livestream its first commercial spaceflight in late June and invite media to witness the event.
Who is riding on Virgin Galactic's Unity 25 spaceflight?
Virgin Galactic will fly an eight-person crew on the Unity 25 mission, a group that is a mix of experienced company spaceflyers, pilots and first-time flyers.
The two VSS Unity pilots on this mission are Michael Masucci and C.J. Sturckow, both of whom have flown to space before. Here's a look at the two men.
Photos: The first space tourists
- Michael Masucci: Masucci will serve as Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Unity commander and has flown on multiple suborbital spaceflights with Virgin Galactic. His first trip to space was a 2019 test flight. He has flown on 80 different types of aircraft since 1982 and accrued more than 10,000 flight hours during his career.
- C.J. Sturckow: A former NASA astronaut and retired Marine Corps colonel, Sturckow is will serve as Unity's pilot and has flown on four NASA space shuttle missions to orbit, commanding two of them. He has flown on 65 different types of craft and has over 8.700 hours of flight experience. His first trip to space was on NASA's STS-88 mission in 1998, and he later flew on STS-105, STS-117 and STS-128 missions, leaving NASA in 2013. He first flew to suborbital space on Unity during a December 2018 test flight.
Four passengers will ride to suborbital space on Unity during the flight, but only one of them has flown to space before. Here's a look at the quartet riding on the flight.
- Jamila Gilbert: A native of New Mexico, Gilbert, 34, will serve as a mission specialist on the Unity 25 flight and will be launching into space just a one-hour drive from her hometown of Las Cruces. She joined Virgin Galactic in 2019 and studied linguistics, anthropology and studio art at New Mexico State University. Gilbert is Hispanic and will become one of the first 100 women in space with the flight and is also an artist. You can see more of her art at her website JamilaGilbert.com.
- Christopher Huie: A Virgin Galactic flight sciences engineer, Huie, 35, will serve as a mission specialist on Unity 25 and joined the company in 2016. Prior to that, he worked at The Spaceship Company, which built the SpaceShipTwo vehicles for Virgin Galactic before being acquired. Huie holds a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland and is the son of Jamaican immigrants. He grew up in Florida, co-founded Virgin Galactic's Black Leaders in Aerospace Scholarship and Training program, and will become the 19th Black astronaut to reach space, Virgin Galactic said.
- Luke Mays: A former payload operations director at NASA, Mays is an astronaut instructor at Virgin Galactic who will experience his first spaceflight on Unity 25. Prior to joining Virgin Galactic, he spent 25 years in the aerospace industry, including several years training astronauts for NASA. He holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas and a master's in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
- Beth Moses: The only veteran Virgin Galactic astronaut on passenger list for Unity 25, Moses is making her third spaceflight on Unity and was the first woman to fly on the space plane and earn her astronaut wings. Moses has developed Virgin Galactic's astronaut training program and holds bachelor's and master's degrees in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Purdue University.
The VSS Unity space plane will be carried to drop altitude by its Virgin Mother Ship VMS Eve, a huge twin-boom carrier plane that will be flown by two veteran pilots. Here's who will be at the controls of Eve during its own takeoff and landing.
- Jameel Janjua: Janjua, who will command the VMS Eve carrier plane during the Unity 25 flight, has been flying aircraft since 1995. He has flown on 60 different types of aircraft and accrued 4,800 hours of flight time during his career.
- Nicola Pecile: Pecile serves as VMS Eve pilot on the Unity 25 flight and has flown on 170 different aircraft since beginning his flying career in 1991. He has a total of 7,700 flight hours, according to Virgin Galactic.
How long with Virgin Galactic's Unity 25 spaceflight last?
Virgin Galactic has not released a detailed timeline of its Unity 25 test flight. However, the company has said in the past that an average SpaceShipTwo suborbital mission should last 90 minutes from takeoff to landing.
The flight begins at takeoff, with SpaceShipTwo Unity tucked beneath its VMS Eve mothership and attached to a pylon in between the carrier plane's twin booms. Eve will fly SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), where it will drop the Unity space plane and pull away to a safe distance.
Aboard Unity, Massucci and Sturckow will ignite the space plane's hybrid rocket motor and ascend into space, reaching an altitude of at least 50 miles (80 kilometers), which the FAA and U.S. military have recognized as the boundary of space.
At the peak of the flight, Unity and its crew will experience about four minutes of weightlessness, at which time the Gilbert, Huie, Mays and Moses can exit their seats, float about the cabin and look at Earth through Unity's large round windows.
After those four minutes are over, the passengers will strap back into their seats for the return to Earth, with Massucci and Sturckow relying on a unique "feathering" system that folds its twin tail booms back and up like a shuttlecock to stabilize Unity during reentry. The space plane will then make a runway landing at Spaceport America to end the flight.
Editor's note: Visit Space.com on May 25 for complete coverage of Virgin Galactic's Unity 25 spaceflight.
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Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.