It’s been 20 years since the first tourist ventured into space, and a decade later since Richard Branson originally hoped to escape Earth’s gravity links aboard a Virgin Galactic spacecraft.
But with Virgin founder finally due to board a rocket ship this weekend and rival billionaire Jeff Bezos looking at the sky nine days later, a commercial space tourism industry could finally approach departure.
Branson, 70, is scheduled to arrive at the edge of the space over the New Mexico desert on Sunday morning local time, riding on the VSS Unity. The winged spacecraft is destined to be carried at about 50,000ft by a specially designed aircraft, before being released and launching its solid-fuel missile to fly over 80km.
Branson has already signaled his intention to use the flight as an unofficial launch for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism activities. The company was given in the green light by the U.S. federal aviation administration last month to operate a commercial service, the latest obstacle in the process of transporting up to six paying passengers for each of its future flights.
Branson also sought to use the advertising generated by his personal flight to make full use of a marketing window earlier. Bezos’ own flight aboard a Blue Origin rocket.
A successful launch opens the door to space tourism in full swing, Branson said. It would also provide a critical blow in the arm for a company whose fortunes have become central to the well-being of the entire Virgin group.
Branson’s stake of about 24 percent in Virgin Galactic, now worth just under $ 3 billion, has been his most important source of liquidity in a difficult period. After the company went public early last year and its shares increased, it sold a value of $ 300 million to help support Virgin Atlantic and other businesses that have been hit by the pandemic.
The highly volatile stock price has been closely tied to expectations of when the company will be ready to start trading operations. The value of Branson’s stake fell below $ 1 billion in May amid a prolonged delay in its test schedule, before rebounding sharply after its release. first successful flight in two years.
A return to ticket sales after a successful flight this weekend provides a major financial blow to the arms. They were suspended in 2014 after an accident in which the Virgin spacecraft crashed shortly after it fired its rockets, killing a test pilot and establishing its program years ago.
Based on the rate at which it burned its money last year, Virgin Galactic had about two and a half years of money on hand when it revealed its latest financial situation. His next challenge will be to bolster his financial reserves with renewed sales while at the same time appeasing hundreds of potential astronauts who have been waiting years to fly.
Branson said tickets for the first flights will be sold for much more than the prices up to $ 250,000 the company charged in previous sales. The higher price will help the company begin to recover its huge development costs and reflect the initial shortage of jobs, he said. More than 600 people have made payments on average around $ 130,000 each for a position in a row. Another 1,000 made $ 1,000 deposits when the sales window was reopened for a short period last year.
Virgin Galactic has already put a lot of the pieces in place to support her planned tourist activity. They include a production line to begin building a series of spacecraft, eventually reaching what Branson hopes will be a 30-40m fleet that can transport passengers from anywhere in the world. The company also has a base in New Mexico’s “space port”, a $ 220 million taxpayer-funded development that was completed more than a decade ago, hoping it will soon become an anchor tenant. .
Branson’s own flight, evoking the appetite for risk-taking and flirting with the physical danger that is long part of his personal brand, is now likely to set the tone for the company’s marketing. The Blue Origin spacecraft, carried on the tip of its Shepard spacecraft, was designed to fly free in the event of an accident, a procedure that was already successfully activated when an unmanned test flight went awry. VSS Unity does not have an escape mechanism.
Using Sunday’s flight to project the adventure and excitement of space exploration could be the last major blow to Branson’s long-term dream of building a space company – as long as Virgin Galactic’s well-established clientele also believes that they’ll be back in a while.