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After only seven commercial flights, Virgin Galactic retires Unity

The delays have never really ended: After only seven commercial flights (the most recent this past weekend), Virgin Galactic has now retired its Unity suborbital spacecraft, and will cease flights for two years while it builds a new generation suborbital craft.

Virgin Galactic flew the last commercial flight of Virgin SpaceShip (VSS) Unity yesterday. Future suborbital trips will have to wait until the new Delta-class spaceships are ready in 2026. They can carry six passengers instead of four, increasing revenue. This flight, Galactic 07, took a Turkish researcher and three private individuals across the imaginary line that separates air and space for a few minutes of weightlessness.

Founded in 2004 and largely funded by Sir Richard Branson as part of his Virgin Group, Virgin Galactic is still trying to demonstrate that commercial suborbital human spaceflight can be a profitable business. Last year Branson told the Financial Times he would stop investing in Virgin Galactic, putting pressure on CEO Michael Colglazier to cut costs and focus on getting the Delta version flying. After all these years of waiting to fly commercial passengers,VSS Unity will stop after just one year and seven commercial flights.

Branson had promised that Virgin Galactic would be flying hundreds of times per year by the mid-2000s. Didn’t happen. Virgin Galactic took deposits from hundreds (it claimed), but even now has only flown 30 people on those seven flights, many of whom have been recent customers, not the many original supporters. That’s the sum total of all of Richard Branson’s achievement with this company in two decades.

Now, with Branson out of the picture, the new management has to redo everything again, because what Branson designed was not profitable. I have serious doubts the company will fly again in 2026.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

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"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • pzatchok

    I have serious doubts that they will fly again at all.

  • mkent

    ”Virgin Galactic took deposits from hundreds (it claimed), but even now has only flown 30 people on those seven flights, many of whom have been recent customers, not the many original supporters.

    This is the worst part. The first 100 customers in 2004 had to pay the full $200,000 up front to guarantee they’d be in the first 100. Virgin took their money, made them wait 20 years, flew other people (at least several of whom didn’t pay anything) ahead of them, and now they have announced another two-year standdown.

    Not exactly a great advertisement for the Virgin brand.

  • pzatchok

    Its just a bad all around design.

    I think it was more of a way to keep Scaled Composites running than some way to readily reach space.

  • Jeff Wright

    Scaled was misused by Branson….the cause of stick-and-rudder winged spaceflight has taken such a hit post-shuttle that fly-boys got badly used by businessmen…at least that’s my guess.

    Dragon is more automated than early Vostoks.
    Pilots don’t like that.

  • pzatchok

    Stick and Rudder is so last week.

    But seriously I LOVE stick and rudder.
    But even the US shuttle could fly autonomously and did. Supposedly the Soviet Burran did make its only flight unmanned. All passenger planes could be automated. The largest are.

    Old NASA astronauts would only ride in those capsules if they thought they had some form of control and or they could pilot them. But seriously, monkeys did their job first. They were just needed for the non flight parts.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “Now, with Branson out of the picture, the new management has to redo everything again, because what Branson designed was not profitable. I have serious doubts the company will fly again in 2026.

    Aerospace projects tend to have optimistic schedules, but I suspect that they will fly again.

    Redesigning SpaceShipTwo should have been done over a decade ago, when they realized that they had trouble with the spacecraft. Instead, they have a dozen years kluging together fixes and patches, trying to get the results they wanted. It is like starting over with software. The bugs in the system are easily avoided, the second time, and the first attempt taught the engineers a lot about what to do right as well as what to avoid. Because of these lessons learned, starting from scratch can be done fairly quickly, too.

  • pzatchok

    Its the swing wing design for starters.
    The craft does not get enough speed to require heat shields so why slow it down during the return? Just fly it like a fast glider.
    The second wrong idea was that stupid engine. Seriously powdered rubber and liquid O2?
    An all liquid or all solid fueled engine would have been better and safer.
    And finally those stupid carrier craft. A modified 747 could have done the job.

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