Delay In Maiden Sortie Might Be Bad Sign For Virgin Galactic In Space Tourism Market

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

Virgin Galactic recently made news for delaying its commercial spaceflight service to Q1 2023. The share price slid to 67% (35% in the past week itself) due to downgrades by financial analysts as the company was not profitable for the past 12 months.

On this development, an analyst from Global Data, a leading data and analytics company, said that since Richard Branson flew his own spacecraft to the edge of space, his company’s position as a pioneer in the space tourism industry was more than that assured. However, the analyst added that Virgin Galactic had lost momentum owing to delays in its commercial spaceflight services. This United States-based spaceflight company, founded by ace entrepreneur Richard Branson, is the world’s first commercial spaceline. Branson’s British Virgin Group retains an 11.9 % stake through Virgin Investments Limited. It is headquartered in California, USA, and operates from New Mexico.

Along with VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic rolled out another spaceship, VSS Imagine, in March 2021. Later on, the company also announced that it was building another vehicle called ‘VSS Inspire’. On July 11, 2021, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity successfully carried a crew of mission specialists and Richard Branson to the edge of space and back to VSS Unity- its primary spaceplane in Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company’s spacecraft are dropped from the White Knight Two – VMS Eve (two White Knight Two carriers were ordered) carrier at about 50,000 feet before igniting a rocket motor and continuing to space. The company states that its purpose is to unite people across the globe to the love, wonder and awe created by space travel.

In October 2021, Virgin Galactic announced that it would not resume commercial flight operations until 2022 due to a comprehensive enhancement of its vehicles. The company is completing an overhaul of its carrier plane, VMS Eve, which requires new horizontal stabilisers and a redesigned pylon to carry the spaceships to their drop altitude. Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said the company is looking forward to returning to space in the fourth quarter and commencing commercial service in the first quarter of next year.

The spaceflight firm aims to fly to space three times a month once its spacecraft- Unity and Imagine- operate commercial spaceflights. They also recently announced that VSS Unity is due to start commercial flights in the first quarter of 2023. On the other hand, Imagine is set to begin its first commercial service in mid-2023. Company officials have quoted supply chain difficulties and labour shortages as the reasons for the delay, which puts off the company’s debut to space considerably.

Virgin Galactic plans to offer three flights a month after it completes upgrades to its carrier aeroplane and introduces a second spaceship, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Michael Colglazier said Monday on a call with analysts.

The California-based company’s delayed introduction of its commercial space travel services until the first quarter of 2023 may be a deterrence to its forerunner position in the commercial space travel segment. However, the company has stated that demand for space travel tickets has remained strong despite the numerous delays, with nearly 800 future astronaut reservations in place. The tickets are priced at $450,000 per person- and they have not had difficulty attracting billionaire customers. Last year, Virgin Galactic said it had 700 or so customers in its pool, and a wait list of 800. Among Branson’s billionaire friends, Elon Musk is believed to have already bought a Virgin Galactic ticket. Branson, too, hopes to travel in Musk’s SpaceX.

Despite this, Virgin Galactic may lag behind the increasingly competitive space travel market as it labours to resolve its rapid reusability problem while also keeping long-term effectiveness in mind. Not to mention SpaceX and Axiom Space’s private mission to the International Space Station (ISS) late last month have already come into the competition mix. That 10-day trip made history and testimony to the emerging space tourism experience. Besides, with this sort of lead, even if Virgin Galactic manages to reduce its turnaround time and cater to the backlog of ticket holders, a 90-minute flight may not be enough to compete with its adversaries.

Space tourism is a fast-emerging market with a handful of competitors, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, vying to make vacationing in space an accessible reality.


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