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Virgin Galactic announced another delay Thursday in its planned commercial flights to space, setting the start date for passenger service back from fall 2022 to winter 2023.
Supply-chain bottlenecks, plus difficulty hiring engineers and skilled labor as Virgin Galactic upgrades its current fleet of spaceships, forced the space-tourism company to extend, yet again, its ongoing flight hiatus to beyond its previous fall 2022 commercial launch target, CEO Michael Colglazier said in an earnings conference call with investors late Thursday afternoon.
“Our teams are working hard to mitigate all the issues, but cumulatively, we’re seeing enough things happen that meant extending our time path,” Colglazier told conference participants.
The company said in February that its VSS Unity spaceship, which has flown to suborbit four times in recent years, would be ready to re-start test flights this summer, along with the mothership, VMS Eve, which carries the Unity part way to space before the rocket ship detaches from Eve and ignites its engines to shoot into suborbit.
Following the summer tests, Unity and Eve were expected to begin tourist flights at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico in late 2022, allowing up to six paying passengers to board joyrides to space where they can float for a few minutes in microgravity and enjoy spectacular views.
The company’s second spaceship, VSS Imagine, was also expected to start test flights in New Mexico this fall, followed by commercial passenger service with that rocket ship in winter 2023. That would allow Virgin Galactic to begin offering up to three tourist flights per month.
However, under the new schedule announced Thursday, the Unity will now conduct only two test flights this fall, one where the spaceship detaches from Eve to just float back down to the spaceport, and then a second “powered” flight where it will fire up its rocket motors to blast into suborbit, Colglazier said.
That would pave the way for Unity to begin at least one commercial flight per month in early 2023, while Imagine simultaneously begins its test program.
But, as a new vehicle that has yet to fly to space, Imagine will need more testing than Unity before boarding paying passengers, setting back commercial service using both rockets until mid-2023.
“With Imagine, we’ll do a series of flight tests with more analysis, since it will be its first time flying,” Colglazier said.
On Friday morning, Virgin Galactic’s stock price dropped 13%, from $7.46 per share on Thursday afternoon to $6.51. That’s down from a peak of $62.80 a share in February 2021.
Company shares, which trade on the New York Stock Exchange, began plummeting last fall, after the company announced its current flight hiatus to conduct upgrades on its ships before moving to commercial service. That hiatus has now been extended twice.
The company did capture global attention last July, after Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson successfully flew to suborbit from Spaceport America with other company crew members. To date, some 31 million people have watched the livestream and video clips of that history-making flight, according to the company.
But with Virgin Galactic now grounded for nearly 10 months and counting, public attention has largely shifted to rival space tourism company Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, said Rich Smith, a writer for the investor advisory service The Motley Fool who follows Virgin Galactic on the NYSE. Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket has conducted four successful passenger flights to space from West Texas since last summer, the latest of which on March 31, allowing Bezos’ company to grab headlines and rack up experience to potentially expand its lead in the emerging space tourism business.
“With nearly eight more months to go before Virgin Galactic begins its commercial flights, Blue Origin has more time to keep flying and increasing its competttive edge,” Smith told the Journal. “I think, at least for now, it’s making Virgin Galactic appear somewhat irrelevant.”
Still, Virgin Galactic is using the hiatus to build a solid foundation for sustainable space tourism operations in New Mexico and other countries, laying the infrastructure and business framework for rapid manufacture of its next-generation “Delta” class rockets. That will allow the company to produce a fleet of spaceships that could begin weekly flights from Spaceport America by 2025.
Unlike its two current spaceships and the mothership Eve – which in-house engineers designed and built individually over time – the Delta class will be fully designed for assembly-line manufacturing using national aerospace suppliers to build the sub assemblies. Virgin Galactic will do final integration of the Delta ships as an in-house operation at a new facility it plans to open next year.
The company announced a few significant milestones in those efforts on Thursday, including the roll out of a new “Digital Twin” architecture platform that will weave all design and manufacturing processes together online from start-to-finish, said company Chief Financial Officer Doug Ahrens.
“It’s a suite of digital tools to enable higher quality and velocity throughout the production process,” Ahrens told investors. “It will provide a collaborative process all the way through to work seamlessly and much faster than we did before.”
That’s critical as the company begins contracting suppliers for materials and subassemblies to build the Delta class ships.
The company held a suppliers’ conference in March in California, and it has since issued requests for information from companies to begin contracting, Colglazier said.
In-house engineers are also working to consolidate individual materials and components into single sub assemblies that can be built by contractors.
“We’re re-working designs for manufacturability to come together in fewer large assemblies,” Colglazier said.
Meanwhile, in-house engineers are doing multiple modifications and maintenance on the existing ships to improve durability, reliability and predictability, which will reduce time spent on maintenance, testing and verification of craft for faster turnaround between flights when commercial service begins.
Those efforts, however, have been slowed by supply-chain constraints, and by tight labor markets as the company ramps up hiring for the design and engineering work now underway in preparation for Delta class manufacturing, leading to the new delay in commercial launch, Colglazier said.
The company has also signed up about 50 new customers since February, when it reopened sales for reservations on future spaceflights at $450,000 per seat. It now has a total of 800 passengers waiting to fly, with a goal of 1,000 by the time commercial launch begins next year.