Virgin Galactic is a company that intends to offer suborbital flights into space to paying customers in 2022. The company was founded by Richard Branson, a British aerospace and music entrepreneur.
The starting date for flights has been pushed back several times. Branson originally predicted that Virgin Galactic would be flying customers into space by 2007. Development issues, a 2007 fatal explosion during a ground test and a tragic test-flight crash in October 2014 contributed to the delay.
On Dec. 13, 2018, the company passed an important milestone when its VSS Unity test vehicle reached space — at least, according to one definition. The vehicle, a model known as SpaceShipTwo, reached an altitude of 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometers), which is slightly higher than what the U.S. Air Force considers the border between Earth’s atmosphere and space when giving astronaut wings to its pilots. However, the more famous Kármán line defining where space begins is at 62 miles (100 km) up.
Virgin plans to operate its future private space flights out of the Spaceport America complex in New Mexico, but it has also signed an agreement to develop a spaceport in Abu Dhabi.
The company has hundreds of customers who have made deposits for spaceflights. The biggest known name on the list (announced in 2012) is actor Ashton Kutcher, although rumor has it that actors Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and singer Katy Perry have signed on as well. A few people reportedly backed out after the October 2014 crash.
Born from an X-Prize bid
Branson has a portfolio of companies under the Virgin brand, including a music company and an airline. Virgin Galactic was registered as a company in 1999, three years after the Ansari X Prize was announced.
The X Prize was an award of $10 million to the first non-government organization that flew people into space past the Kármán line, using a reusable spacecraft, twice in a two-week span. Branson had been interested in spaceflight since the 1960s, and sponsored Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites’ bid to compete for the prize.
That same year, Virgin pledged to bring ordinary people into space — if they could pay the reported price of $200,000 per seat.
“We hope to create thousands of astronauts over the next few years and bring alive their dream of seeing the majestic beauty of our planet from above, the stars in all their glory and the amazing sensation of weightlessness,” Branson said in September 2004. “The development will also allow every country in the world to have their own astronauts rather than the privileged few.”
Building a base
In July 2005, Branson and Rutan announced a joint venture between Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites called The SpaceShip Company. Together, they manufactured SpaceShipTwo, a new generation of spaceliners that built on SpaceShipOne’s technology. SpaceShipTwo spacecraft are designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. A successor launch craft to White Knight was also developed, and called WhiteKnightTwo.
In December 2005, the state of New Mexico officially offered Virgin Galactic a taxpayer-funded $225 million facility, called Spaceport America, where the company could put its world headquarters and run test flights and spaceflights.
The next major flight milestone wasn’t until July 2008, when the company showed off the first WhiteKnightTwo air launch vehicle — “Eve” — to customers and the media. Eve began test flights in December that year.
Developing the prototype spacecraft took quite a while longer. It wasn’t until December 2009 that VSS Enterprise, the first SpaceShipTwo, was shown off to the world.
“I want to say that this program has been, at this point, harder than we thought it would be. It’s taken longer and is more difficult,” Rutan said at the launch event in New Mexico. “This is an enormous milestone today in unveiling the first commercial manned spacecraft. I look forward to moving into the test program.”
Virgin Galactic’s first crewed test flight was in July 2010, during which the VSS Enterprise spent more than 6 hours in the air. Meanwhile, the company was busy working to find paying customers for the upcoming spaceflights.
Waiting for suborbit
Some customers withdrew from their spot on the passenger list following the lengthy delay in Virgin Galactic’s first spaceflight, but most have said they understand that the company is trying to put safety first.
“Remember, this is pioneering technology,” said passenger Jackie Maw in a 2011 email to Space.com. “We are all focused on the safety of the flights, and I daresay most of the future astronauts are happy to wait [until] Scaled and Virgin Galactic are 100 percent satisfied with the flights.”
While testing continues on SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic has been working to diversify the business. Virgin signed an agreement with NASA in 2011 to work together on research flights. The company also brokered a deal with the Southwest Research Institute to fly the institute’s scientists and experiments into space, and Branson has announced the development of LauncherOne, an expendable liquid-fueled rocket.
The first rocket-powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo took place in April 2013 and another followed in September 2013, then another in January 2014. Each flight went well, with Enterprise zooming high in the sky faster than the speed of sound.
But tragedy struck during the fourth rocket-powered flight, on Oct. 31, 2014, when the vehicle broke apart. The incident killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injured pilot Peter Siebold.
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the accident was caused by SpaceShipTwo’s “feathering” re-entry system deploying too early, as a result of an error by Alsbury. The next version of SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, includes safeguards that will prevent this scenario from happening again, company representatives said.
A blog post from Branson in early January 2015 said he briefly had doubts about whether it was a good idea to continue with SpaceShipTwo’s development after the crash — but his commitment was renewed when he returned to California’s Mojave Desert.
Return to flight
VSS Unity made its first test flight on Sept. 9, 2016, marking a milestone for Virgin as it saw a SpaceShipTwo vehicle take to the air for the first time since the 2014 crash. After separation from WhiteKnightTwo, the VSS Unity flew to an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). From takeoff to landing, the flight lasted 3 hours and 43 minutes.
The company continued with a series of unpowered glide test flights, which means the spacecraft is released from its carrier ship and glides to the ground (including a 2017 successful first test of the new re-entry system) until April 5, 2018, when the company turned on the engines of a SpaceShipTwo vehicle for the first time in 3.5 years. This powered flight saw VSS Unity soar to a maximum altitude of 84,271 feet (25,686 m). During its descent, the crew successfully deployed the feathering system before touching down safely on the spaceport runway.
“@virgingalactic back on track,” Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson tweeted after the test. “Successful powered flight, Mach 1.6. Data review to come, then on to the next flight. Space feels tantalizingly close now.”
Around the same time, Virgin was ramping up its business activities. In December 2017, Virgin signed a SpaceShipTwo research deal with the Italian Space Agency pledging a research flight for the agency that would include a payload specialist on board. In a separate 2017 deal, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund also pledged $1 billion for Virgin’s suborbital and orbital space activities. That same year, the LauncherOne program was spun off into a separate company known as Virgin Orbit.
Virgin rapidly accumulated flight milestones in 2018. Its second powered test flight took place on May 29, 2018, and on July 27, 2018, the VSS Unity reached a maximum altitude of 170,800 feet (52,060 m) — higher than any other Virgin spacecraft that flew before. They topped that record a few months later when VSS Unity flew past the Air Force’s defined line for space on Dec. 13, 2018, soaring to 51.4 miles (87.4 km).
In February of 2021, Virgin Galactic announced that, although additional test flights were subject to further delays, the company plans to take its first tourists to space in early 2022. In the same announcement the company unveiled its first SpaceShip III, the next generation of its tourist vehicles that is intended to begin testing alongside the launch of the VSS Unity’s first commercial flights.
This article was updated on Mar. 31, 2021 by Space.com Reference Editor Vicky Stein.