Spaceflight company Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004 by Richard Branson, the thrill-seeking British billionaire, on the promise that a privately built spacecraft will make it possible for hundreds of people to become astronauts, with no training from NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).
And if a 2,500-mile-per-hour trip to the edge of space seemed off-putting, Branson even vowed to take the journey himself before letting paying customers on board.
Branson is the only one in the group of so-called space barons, a group of space-loving billionaires that includes Tesla founder Elon Musk and Amazon-owner Jeff Bezos, who has publicly pledged to take a trip aboard a spacecraft that he has funded.
Blue Origin, Mr. Bezos’ company, is working on a competing suborbital space tourism rocket. Mr. Musk’s SpaceX, however, is focusing on transporting astronauts and maybe one day visitors to Earth’s orbit on days-long missions.
Over the last decade, Branson made hundreds of media appearances promising various deadlines for his extraterrestrial journey that did not hold true, partially because it almost always takes longer than anticipated to construct a spacecraft and because two catastrophic incidents and, more recently, a pandemic hindered the production of SpaceShipTwo. The company has claimed almost every year since 2004 that it will be flying passengers in a year or two.
Virgin Galactic, however, has recently set another deadline for Branson’s flight which is sometime between January and March 2021.
Notably, the latest announcement wasn’t from Mr. Branson. This time it came from Michael Colglazier, Virgin Galactic’s newly appointed CEO, whose objective is to lead the organization as it expands into a multibillion-dollar space tourism business. Mr. Colglazier was speaking to the company’s investors when he revealed the latest deadline.
The value of the company, which made its stock market debut in 2019, has risen to $4.5 billion, but it is still burning through more than $20 million every month as it advances through the final stages of the testing and certification phase of SpaceShipTwo.
Mr. Branson now has less of a financial stake in the success of Virgin Galactic than he did 16 years ago. Amid controversy and COVID-19-related economic troubles at his airline, Virgin Atlantic, he sold off around a quarter of his shares.
But the recent message from Mr. Colglazier made it clear that Branson, who turned 70 this year, is still preparing to be the poster child for the claim by Virgin Galactic that almost anyone can make the trek safely.
Safety concerns and accidents
Supporters of commercialized human spaceflight have long argued that the desire of mankind to fly into space should not be inhibited by danger and even tragedy.
Virgin Galactic suffered its first disaster in 2007, when three individuals were killed and several others seriously injured during a rocket engine test carried out by employees of Scaled Composites, the research and manufacturing partner of Virgin Galactic.
It prompted intense criticism from professionals in aerospace safety and led to a federal investigation, but the company proceeded.
“Sadly, I think because the space program was run by governments, there was never any real interest in enabling members of the public to go to space” Mr. Branson said in 2013. “I would say 90% of people my age thought they would go to space because they saw the moon landing.”
Disaster hit Virgin Galactic again, one year later. During a test flight over the California desert, the company’s prototype space plane broke apart and killed 39-year-old co-pilot Michael Alsbury. Mr. Branson faced accusations that Virgin Galactic had ignored safety alerts, which the company denied.
“If any of our rocket engineers warned something wasn’t safe to go we wouldn’t go,” Branson said at the time. “We take safety very, very carefully. Nobody said anything to worry any of the team about going.”
Ultimately, it was concluded the that crash was caused by pilot error. Following this Virgin Galactic reorganized its manufacturing business and had a new, fully assembled SpaceShipTwo with added safety features within two years.
In a 2018 test mission, the vehicle, named VSS Unity, went on to perform flawlessly. Branson watched from the ground as the spacecraft accelerated at three times the speed of sound to more than 50 miles above Earth’s surface before landing safely back at Virgin Galactic’s testing facilities a short time later.
Another successful 2019 test flight carried its first passenger but it was not Mr. Branson. It was the safety and training chief of Virgin Galactic, Beth Moses, who tested the comfort of traveling from the cabin of the spacecraft. She described the experience as “intense” but not “overly dramatic.”
Before Branson’s flight, at least eight other Virgin Galactic employees will fly on SpaceShipTwo. The company said it expects to fly another test this fall with only two pilots, and another flight will take off in early 2021 with two pilots and four test passengers. All of these will seek the Federal Aviation Administration’s seal of approval, certifying SpaceShipTwo for commercial operation.
Branson will be on the next flight after that.
It remains uncertain if the business model of Virgin Galactic can be turned into a profitable and sustainable money-making operation, or any space tourism business. But for years, Virgin Galactic executives have recognized that its success or failure would depend on whether or not the business convinces the general public that the trip will not only be safe, but worth the heavy price tag per seat.