Sir Richard Branson’s recent spaceflight from southern New Mexico generated global excitement about Virgin Galactic’s long-promised space-tourism business, but it will still be another year before the company starts flying paying passengers into suborbit.
The company announced on Aug. 5 that its planned spaceship maintenance-and-upgrade program – originally scheduled as a four-month hiatus from October-January – will be extended to eight months, effectively pushing back the launch of commercial rocket flights until late-summer 2022.
That’s because Virgin Galactic must complete structural upgrades to its passenger rockets, and to the mothership that flies them partway to space, before initiating commercial service for paying customers, company CEO Michael Colglazier told investors during a second-quarter earnings conference call.
The upgrades will significantly shorten the turn-around time between spaceflights for both the VSS Unity – the rocket that flew Branson to space on July 11 – and the company’s second rocket, Imagine, which is already built but won’t begin test flights until next year. The improvements could cut downtime between flights from about seven-to-eight weeks now to just four or five weeks, Colglazier said.
As for the mothership, VMS Eve, the upgrades could increase the number of flights it can manage before requiring major inspections and maintenance by 10-fold, from once every ten flights now to once every 100, Colglazier said.
That, in turn, will allow Virgin Galactic to fly more passengers to space in a shorter time frame on its existing spaceships while the company begins building more passenger rockets and motherships at its production headquarters at the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California. Virgin Galactic’s new “Delta Class” spaceships will be designed for just one week of turn-around times between flights, potentially paving the way for multiple weekly tourist rides in a few years.
But in the meantime, Virgin Galactic must rely on just the Unity, Imagine and Eve to begin working through its backlog of 600 customers who already paid for rides to space when commercial operations begin next year. And the company must first complete service for those passengers before it begins boarding all the new tourists who are expected to buy tickets now that Virgin Galactic has reopened sales for seats on its rockets.
That puts a lot of pressure on Eve, and on Virgin Galactic’s two existing rockets, to perform rapidly until the Delta Class vehicles come off the production line. As a result, the company has lengthened its planned maintenance-and-upgrade, or “enhancement period,” from four to eight months to make significant improvements, particularly on the mothership, which will be flown back to Mojave in the fall, Colglazier said.
“We extended the enhancement period to get the flight rates up to move through the first 600 customers as quickly as possible,” he said. “… These are robust modifications, so we’ll go back to Mojave to do it during an extended period.”
The company plans one more flight with Eve and Unity in late September to carry four passengers from the Italian Air Force to suborbit for experiments in microgravity and future astronaut training. That will be Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight.
“We’ll fly Eve back to Mojave right after that,” Colglazier said.
Eve won’t return to Spaceport America in southern New Mexico until after the enhancement period ends in mid-2022. At that point, the company will conduct one more flight with Eve and Unity with just Virgin Galactic crew members onboard before preparing for the first commercial launch with paying passengers in mid-to-late summer next year.
Apart from enhancements to increase flight rates, the company will also make some modifications to Unity’s passenger cabin based on feedback from Branson and the three crew members who joined him on his flight to suborbit on July 11. That includes additional hand-holds for passengers to more easily maneuver while floating in microgravity, and more footholds for researchers conducting experiments during flights.
The company will also improve the rocket’s communications network, which experienced some brief interruptions during Branson’s trip.
“That’s not a flight or safety issue,” Colglazier said. “We expect to resolve it before our next flight.”
Despite the extended enhancement period, Branson’s flight marked an “inflection point” for the company, building global enthusiasm for Virgin Galactic’s future space business and thrusting it into a final phase of preparations for commercial launch next year, Colglazier said.
“We created a cultural moment,” Colglazier told investors during the Aug. 5 earnings call. “We saw incredible global engagement, with viewership coming from over 65 countries. Millions of space enthusiasts around the planet shared a glimpse into the journey the Virgin Galactic future astronauts can expect, and they loved it.”
The company reported 19 million views of the Branson flight through its livestream coverage of the event and third party broadcasters. A huge surge in website visitation and inquiries from prospective customers followed.
“The volume of inquires that came in asking for information just blew us away,” Colglazier said.
That encouraged the company to reopen ticket sales on Aug. 5 for the first time since December 2018, beginning with efforts to convert many of the roughly 1,000 people who have put down $1,000 deposits to reserve seats on future flights into customers with fully-purchased tickets.
It remains to be seen, however, how many reserve ticket holders and people currently inquiring about flights will actually become paying passengers, given the company’s decision to nearly double prices from $250,000 per seat previously to $450,000 now.
Under Virgin Galactic’s new pricing model, the cost of a single rocket seat will start at $450,000, with price discounts for the purchase of two or more seats, or for groups that reserve all available seats on a spaceflight.
“We have a purposeful range of product offerings in order to satisfy the different ways people will want to share this experience of private astronaut flights,” Colglazier said.
The company is also selling research tickets for experiments in microgravity at $600,000 a seat. That higher price reflects Virgin Galactic payload racks that can offer capacity for up to four microgravity experiments per seat, according to the company.
Investors are still mulling over the business implications of the new pricing structure, said Rich Smith, a writer for the investor advisory service The Motley Fool who follows Virgin Galactic on the New York Stock Exchange. Virgin Galactic’s stock price dropped from nearly $32 a share before announcing the reopening of ticket sales on Aug. 5 to $27.36 on Aug. 11.
“There’s a risk that a ticket price that’s twice what was initially advertised could scare away a lot of would-be space tourists,” Smith wrote in an Aug. 10 posting.
The company needs robust sales to generate enough revenue to reach profitability in coming years. As of now, it’s burning through a lot of cash as it continues to invest in company development before launching commercial operations.
It reported a net loss of $94 million in the second quarter, up from a $72 million loss in the same period last year.
Still, the company remains well capitalized, with over $1 billion in available cash and cash equivalents, Chief Financial Officer Doug Ahrens told investors. That includes $500 million Virgin Galactic raised in July through sale of 13.7 million shares of common stock at an average price of $36.39 per share.
Kevin Robinson-Avila covers technology, energy, venture capital and utilities for the Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.