Virgin Galactic's lengthy road to space tourism is nearing an end. The firm now expects its final VSS Unity test flight to launch as soon as May 25th at 10AM Eastern, with specialist training starting on May 22nd. The mission will check the technical functionality and the "astronaut experience" one more time before commercial service begins.
The company hasn't narrowed down the official start to paid service. It has delayed the rollout multiple times, most recently due to challenges upgrading the VMS Eve "mothership" that carries Unity to 50,000 feet. Virgin launched its first fully crewed spaceflight in July 2021, with founder Richard Branson aboard.
A successful test may be crucial for Virgin. The company is still bleeding money, and lost just over $500 million in 2022. When tickets cost $450,000 each and require a $150,000 deposit, commercial service could help Virgin stem those losses and fund its long-term ambitions, which include next-gen Delta vehicles due to enter service in 2026.
There's also external pressure. Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is already carrying civilians into space, and SpaceX is slowly moving closer to its dreams of lunar tourist trips. While these flights will also be out of reach for many people, Virgin still doesn't want to be seen lagging behind rivals competing for wealthy passengers.