Virgin Galactic will finally begin flying paying clients to the edge of space in the company’s rocket-powered plane, SpaceShipTwo, this summer. The first trip, dubbed Galactic 01, is scheduled to take off on June 27.
If Galactic 01 reaches the edge of space, it will have been a long time coming—nearly 20 years. Richard Branson, the wealthy founder of Virgin Galactic, first announced his entry into the space tourism market in 2004, intending to fly customers in 2007. Delays, as well as a catastrophic in-flight accident, slowed development. Although Branson rode onboard SpaceShip Two in July 2021, Virgin Galactic has yet to conduct a commercial flight.
Flights this summer are about to change that. The corporation is finally ready to open the cordon in front of its waiting customers, who paid between $250,000 and $450,000 each. However, it may be too late to make Virgin Galactic a viable contender in the space tourism industry.
“I do not have high hopes for Virgin Galactic’s long-term stability due to their excruciatingly slow pace to become operational, their high company expenses, and their mixed safety track record,” says Laura Forczyk, a space industry analyst and founder of the consultancy Astralytical. “Unless there is a significant change in operations, I don’t think their revenues will be able to catch up with their expenses.”
Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer, and his business, Scaled Composites, launched Virgin Galactic with a gleam of hope. Rutan and Scaled Composites designed and built SpaceShipOne, a sub-orbital spaceplane that flew to space twice in two weeks in 2004, winning the $10 million Ansari X-Prize. Later that year, Branson partnered with Rutan to create SpaceShip Two, giving birth to Virgin Galactic.
Like SpaceShipOne, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two is a rocket-powered space plane. The space plane detaches from a larger aircraft dubbed WhiteKnightTwo at 49,000 feet height when the rocket ignites and powers the space plane to little more than 50 miles altitude, which the US government considers the threshold of outer space. SpaceShip Two then glides down to Earth, utilizing a unique “feathering” technology that spins the space plane’s twin tail wings upward and toward the plane’s front, slowing the vehicle during reentry with aerodynamic drag.
However, Virgin Galactic may have put itself at a significant disadvantage by relying on cutting-edge technology as the key to unlocking the space tourism business. “They had a lot more technical problems with this less mature technology than they expected, and they had a lot of safety concerns,” Forczyk adds. “Traditional rockets have a long history of launching uncrewed and crewed spacecraft.” That is not the case with space planes.”
On October 31, 2014, a SpaceShipTwo space vehicle designated VSS Enterprise broke apart in mid-flight over the Mojave desert, killing one of the two test pilots aboard. The National Transportation Safety Board ruled that during the test flight, one of the pilots deployed the feathering mechanism too early, causing the plane to crash.
Unlike traditional rockets, space planes cannot be tested without a human crew on board, which increases the danger during development, according to Forczyk. This may have hindered Virgin Galactic’s progress compared to competitors like Blue Origin, which employs traditional rockets and space capsules for tourists. Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos launched his company’s New Shephard rocket into space in 2021—the same month as Branson’s space plane flight—and has since flown hundreds of paying passengers.
“They had competitors who took advantage of the fact that they were not online when they said they would be,” adds Forcyzk.
Is it conceivable for Virgin Galactic to catch up in the space tourism race after a stumbling start? It has two functions. The company needs to raise financing, “and they need to prove their safety and operations to raise that capital,” adds Forczyk. “I’m not sure what this summer will bring, but we should expect more delays.” We’re hoping to see more flights.”
It must also demonstrate that the flights are safe. “Their entire business case is based on the public perception of these people who are willing to fly on their vehicle, either for fun or research,” Forcyzk explains. “Unlike their competitors, they do not have another business location to fall back on.”
In many ways, Virgin Galactic is a space firm designed for 2004—the pre-iPhone era—rather than 2023. It can transport space tourists and researchers, but not freight. Unlike Blue Origin, which is also developing a lunar lander for NASA, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is launching satellites and astronauts for NASA and the Department of Defense, Virgin Galactic’s expectations are based solely on its single craft and the tourists eager to ride it.