LONDON — Richard Branson’s space-tourism venture, Virgin Galactic, is planning to go public, creating the first listed human spaceflight firm.
Virgin Galactic. which intends to launch tourists to the boundary of space from New Mexico’s Spaceport America, said Tuesday it is merging with Social Capital Hedosophia. That company’s CEO, Chamath Palihapitiya, will become chairman of the combined entity. The value of the merger was put at $1.5 billion.
“We are at the dawn of a new space age, with huge potential to improve and sustain life on Earth,” Branson said. “I am delighted that SCH has decided to become such an important part of our amazing journey. They share our dreams and together we will make them reality.”
The company intends to offer “a unique, multi-day experience culminating in a personal spaceflight that includes out-of-seat gravity and views of Earth from space.” It aims to complete the merger this year before listing on the New York Stock Exchange.
The company believes it is at an “inflection point” in its development as it moves toward launching commercial operations, and said it had overcome a number of the technical hurdles required to make the company profitable.
In December, Virgin Galactic’s tourism spaceship climbed 51 miles (82 kilometers) above California’s Mojave Desert, reaching for the first time what the company considers the boundary of space. The supersonic flight took the company closer to its aim of taking paying customers on the six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet.
During a second flight in February, the spaceship, VSS Unity, carried pilots as well as a crewmember who tested the passenger experience. Virgin Galactic also recently announced it is moving more than 100 employees from Mojave, Calif., to Spaceport America in southern New Mexico where they plan to conduct commercial operations.
At a news conference in Santa Fe in May with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Branson said the company will now continue its test flight program at the Spaceport near Upham, about 50 miles north of Las Cruces, after moving the Virgin Galactic passenger rocket and its mothership to New Mexico. The mothership carries the passenger vehicle on its underbelly to about 45,000 feet, where it then detaches from the mothership and fires its rockets to shoot into suborbit at 50 miles up.
The company expects to have about 150 employees in New Mexico by the end of the summer, although it remains headquartered in Mojave, where it’s building two more passenger vehicles and another mothership. It will conduct its space tourism operations at Spaceport America, but it’s still not clear how soon those paying-passenger flights will begin.
Virgin said that some $1 billion had been invested in the project since its inception in 2004, and that people are interested in taking part. Virgin Galactic said it has reservations from some 600 people in 60 countries, with $80 million in deposits and $120 million in potential revenue.
“In a transforming world of experiences and social media, VG believes that the market for exclusive, experiential products will continue to expand quickly and represents a significant opportunity for future growth,” it said in the merger announcement.
Branson isn’t alone in the space tourism business: Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is planning to take space tourists on trips while SpaceX’s Elon Musk recently announced plans to take a wealthy Japanese entrepreneur and his friends on a trip around the moon.
John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report
Journal Staff Writer Kevin Robinson-Avial contributed to this report