Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceship is set to begin its first flight tests in southern New Mexico as the company prepares to send Sir Richard Branson into space later this year.
The Unity’s arrival Feb. 13 at Spaceport America marked a major milestone, kicking off the spaceship’s “final test phase” before launch of Virgin Galactic’s commercial operations to fly paying passengers to space, CEO George Whitesides said during the company’s first earnings conference call with investors Tuesday afternoon.
“We’re entering the most exciting part of our journey,” Whitesides said. “… We continue to focus on our top priority of the year – to fly Richard Branson into space.”
Before that can happen, the company will conduct a series of glide tests in southern New Mexico, followed by rocket-powered flights.
“We reached our next major milestone toward achieving our goals by relocating the spaceship to New Mexico,” Whitesides said. “It sets us up to conduct test flights from our permanent base of operations.”
Branson’s first flight could still be many months off, since the company wants to test all aspects of its ground and air operations, Whitesides said.
That includes flying the Unity on the underbelly of the VMS Eve, the mother ship that will carry the six-passenger spaceship to about 45,000 feet, at which point the Unity breaks away and fires up its rockets to shoot into space at 264,000 feet, or 50 miles up. Once there, paying passengers will be able to float for a few minutes in microgravity and view the Earth’s curvature before the Unity glides back to Earth for a soft landing at the Spaceport.
It’s unclear how much testing Virgin Galactic will conduct before allowing Branson to board, much less paying passengers. The company wants first to review every element of the customers’ experience throughout the “full flight program,” starting with all ground services prior to boarding the Unity and optimal comfort and safety for passengers in the cabin while on board the spacecraft.
Pilots also need to build experience flying in New Mexico, collecting more performance data and coordinating operations with ground crews, Whitesides said.
“With each test we’ll collect data on the entire flight performance,” Whitesides said. “… We want to ready the vehicle for long-term, high-rate commercial service.”
In fact, based on testing, the company could still fly the Unity back to Virgin Galactic headquarters at the Mojave Air and Space Port, where the spaceship was built, for structural modifications if needed, Whitesides said.
“We’ve come very far, but there’s still significant, important work to accomplish to fly safely and successfully,” he said.
Virgin Galactic is also still navigating the approval process to obtain a Federal Aviation Administration license to fly paying passengers to space from Spaceport America.
“We have a commercial launch license to conduct space flight missions, but we’re now in the approval process to fly paying customers,” Whitesides said. “We’ve cleared 20 of the 29 verification and validation elements needed.”
But with the Unity and the VMS Eve now both in New Mexico, potential interest from customers worldwide is soaring. The company said nearly 8,000 people have registered their interest in reserving a seat on Unity as of Feb. 23, up from about 3,560 last September.
That’s in addition to the roughly 600 people who previously paid deposits to fly at $250,000 per ticket. The company stopped selling spots on the spaceship in December 2018, but it’s gearing up now to take new reservations as the company nears commercial launch.
It announced a new sales program Tuesday, the “One Small Step Initiative,” whereby new potential customers can pay a refundable $1,000 deposit to be first in line for new tickets when the company opens the next tranche of seats for reservations, said Virgin Galactic Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough. The deposit would go toward paying off the ticket for customers who actually follow through on buying a seat on the spacecraft.
“We have been greatly encouraged by the ongoing and increasing demand seen from around the world for personal spaceflight,” Attenborough said in a statement. “One Small Step allows us to help qualify and build confidence in our direct sales pipeline, as well as ensure that those who are most keen to make reservations are able to do so at the earliest opportunity.”
As the company prepares for commercial service in New Mexico with the Unity and the Eve now docked at the Spaceport, Virgin Galactic is pushing forward on building a full fleet of five spaceships and a second mother ship. Two more passenger rockets are now under production in Mojave, with one of them expected to begin test flights next year.
Now that the rocket’s basic foundation and design has been proven through the Unity, which flew two times to space from California in December 2018 and February 2019, new vehicle production has become much faster and more efficient, Whitesides said.
The company placed the second rocket on its wheels for the first time last December.
“That’s nine months faster than it took for the first spaceship,” Whitesides said.
The company hopes to have the full five-rocket fleet in service by 2023.
“We’re readying the vehicles for long-term, high-rate service,” Whitesides said. “We’ll add a full fleet of vehicles that can turn around relatively rapidly.”
• $480 million in cash and cash equivalents.
• $529,000 in revenue earned from October to December.
• $6 million in capital expenditures during the last three months of the year.
• A $73 million net loss in the fourth quarter.