It is 20 years since the first tourist ventured into space, and a decade on from when Richard Branson originally hoped to escape the bonds of Earth’s gravity on a Virgin Galactic spacecraft.
But with the Virgin founder finally due to board a rocket ship this weekend and rival billionaire Jeff Bezos aiming for the heavens nine days later, a commercial space tourism industry could finally be getting close to lift-off.
Branson, 70, is scheduled to reach the edge of space over the New Mexico desert early on Sunday morning local time, riding on the VSS Unity. The winged spacecraft is set to be carried to around 50,000ft by a specially designed plane, before being released and firing its solid-fuel rocket to soar above 80km.
Branson has already signalled his intention of using the flight as the unofficial launch for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism business. The company was given the green light by the US Federal Aviation Administration last month to operate a commercial service, the final hurdle on the way to carrying up to six paying passengers on each of its future flights.
Branson has also sought to use the publicity generated by his personal flight to make full use of a marketing window before Bezos’ own flight aboard a Blue Origin rocket.
A successful launch would open the door to full-fledged space tourism, Branson has said. It would also provide a critical shot in the arm for a venture whose fortunes have become central to the wellbeing of the entire Virgin group.
Branson’s stake of around 24 per cent in Virgin Galactic, currently worth just under $3bn, has been his most important source of liquidity in a difficult period. After the company went public early last year and its shares soared, he sold $300m worth of stock to help support Virgin Atlantic and other businesses that were hit by the pandemic.
The highly volatile share price has been closely tied to expectations of when the company will be ready to start commercial operations. The value of Branson’s stake fell below $1bn in May amid a protracted delay in its test schedule, before rebounding strongly after its first successful flight in two years.
A return to ticket sales following a successful flight this weekend would provide an important financial shot in the arm. They were suspended in 2014 after an accident in which Virgin’s spaceship broke up soon after firing its rockets, killing a test pilot and setting its programme back years.
Based on the rate at which it burnt through cash last year, Virgin Galactic had about two and a half years of cash on hand when it last disclosed its financial condition. Its next challenge will be to boost its financial reserves with renewed sales while at the same time appeasing hundreds of potential astronauts who have been waiting years to fly.
Branson has said that tickets on the first flights will be sold for considerably more than the prices of up to $250,000 that the company charged in earlier sales. The higher price will help the company start recouping its huge development costs and reflects the initial scarcity of seats, he said. More than 600 people have made payments averaging around $130,000 each for a place in line. Another 1,000 put down $1,000 deposits when the sales window was reopened for a brief period last year.
Virgin Galactic has already put many of the pieces in place to support its planned tourism business. They include a production line to start building a series of spacecraft, eventually reaching what Branson hopes will be a fleet of 30-40 that can carry passengers from locations around the world. The company also has a base at New Mexico’s “spaceport”, a $220m taxpayer-funded development that was completed more than a decade ago on hopes that it would soon become an anchor tenant.
Branson’s own flight, evoking the appetite for risk-taking and flirtation with physical danger that has long been part of his personal brand, is now likely to set the tone for the company’s marketing. Blue Origin’s spacecraft, carried on the tip of its Shepard rocket, is designed to fly free in the event of an accident, a procedure that was already triggered successfully when an unmanned test flight went wrong. VSS Unity has no such escape mechanism.
Using Sunday’s flight to project the adventure and excitement of space exploration could be the final master stroke in Branson’s long dream of building a space business — provided Virgin Galactic’s well-heeled clientele also believe they will get back in one piece.