Virgin Galactic aims for triumphant return with crewed flight at the end of May

Virgin Galactic VSS Unity in flight

Virgin Galactic will return to the skies later this month, in a crewed mission that the company hopes will bring to an end the nearly two-year gap since its first and only crewed flight in July 2021.

The space tourism company said Monday it will send a crew of four to space in late May. The main objective of the mission is to validate the spaceflight system and “astronaut experience” before officially commencing commercial service in June.

Virgin Galactic took people to space for the first time in July 2021, with a crew that included its billionaire founder Richard Branson. The company was no doubt riding high after that mission, but VG has been plagued by issues since. Some of them are technical; others are financial: the company has reported nearly $1.5 billion in operating losses since 2018. Losses have only ballooned over time, with VG telling investors that it burned $133 million in cash in the final quarter of last year, compared to just $65 million in Q4 2021.

Despite these losses, the company does still have substantial runway: nearly $1 billion at the end of last year. The news about this upcoming mission was announced just one day before the company is expected to report its quarterly results.

VG CEO Michael Colglazier has repeatedly assured investors that VG is focused on resuming spaceflights and carrying paying customers. The company has made a number of upgrades to its “mothership,” called VMS Eve, and the spacecraft, VSS Unity. VG’s approach involves strapping the spacecraft to the belly of the mothership and releasing it at around 50,000 feet; this is in contrast to a company like Blue Origin, which vertically launches a rocket that’s fitted with a crew capsule.

The crew includes Jamila Gilbert, who has been with Virgin Galactic since 2019; Christopher Huie, who joined Virgin in 2016 as a flight sciences engineer; Luke Mays, a NASA veteran who is now Virgin’s astronaut instructor; and Beth Moses, who has flown to space on two previous Virgin missions. Two pilots, Mike Masucci and CJ Sturckow, will also be on board.

The first commercial flight, currently set for June, will carry officers from the Italian Air Force. The company eventually hopes to fly 400 times per year with an upgraded line of motherships. At a ticket price of around $425,000 per seat, the company will need around that cadence to finally start returning profits. VG’s current plan is to start testing Delta-class ships by 2025 and enter commercial service the following year.

Virgin Galactic should not be confused with Virgin Orbit, the commercial company also founded by Branson that recently filed for bankruptcy. While Virgin Galactic aims to take humans to space, Virgin Orbit’s goal is to deliver very small payloads of satellites and other spacecraft to orbit.

The article has been updated to reflect that it has been two years since Virgin Galactic's last crewed flight.