Just this past week, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos rode into space on his rocket. But he wasn’t the first billionaire to go suborbital: on July 12th, Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic successfully launched its spacecraft, Unity, into space. On board were six passengers that not only included two pilots and three mission specialists but Branson himself. And he beat fellow-billionaire Bezos by a few days in their commercial space race. By all accounts, it appears that the Virgin Galactic space flight was a tremendous success. But now is where the more difficult work begins. And for the Virgin Galactic team, that means 2022 will be quite a busy year.
As with any technological advance, a series of tests and modifications must take place over time. Learning and insights come from trial and error and through repeated iteration. We understand this is true for any new software release or hardware development process. But when it comes to the commercial space race, these steps are even more vital. In this regard, we can expect that July’s Virgin Galactic space flight was just one of many more to come. These future developments will play a large part in just how quickly the Space Economy evolves. (Read more about the Space Economy in this Bold story.)
“I have always been a dreamer. My mum told me to never give up and to reach for the stars. This July, our dream will become a reality.” – Sir Richard Branson, Founder, Virgin Galactic
The Virgin Galactic Space Flight Model
The Virgin Galactic space flight model is one based on traditional airflight development. The recent successful flight into space reflects the 22nd mission for the spacecraft Unity. This vessel was launched into the edge of space via an airplane mothership that helped it climb to 44,000 feet. From these, the Unity’s rockets catapulted just into the edge of space where passengers experienced weightlessness. The spacecraft then returned safely to ground without apparent mishaps, showing the commercial space race is alive and well.
These aspects of the Virgin Galactic space craft model seem rather straightforward. But there’s a few things that need to be highlighted along the way. For one, the space craft’s engine must be replaced after every flight at a cost of $275,000. That’s roughly the same as the price tag of ticket aboard Branson’s commercial space race vessel. With only six passengers possible aboard the craft, this leaves a fairly tight margin for future profits. However, Branson hopes to make this up in volume over time. In total, he anticipates having multiple international space ports, with each having eight space crafts. And he expects each vessel will fly at least 50 times each year.
“The main focus [with these test series] is to look at things that allow us to increase the flight-rate frequency…we already know, there’s some modifications we want to make to enable that to start to happen.” – Mike Moses, President, Virgin Galactic
Current Status of Branson’s Commercial Space Race
The most recent Virgin Galactic space flight was the first in a series of tests designed to examine operations and flight experiences. Prior assessments have already evaluated aerodynamics and performance quality measures. The current tests are expected to involve a minimum of 3 flights total before moving onto a modification phase for Virgin Galactic. In this subsequent stage, the company will determine specific upgrades to the crafts that can boost flight frequencies. While the remainder of the operational test series will take place this summer, modification phases are scheduled tentatively for 2022. This naturally assumes no major setbacks occur along the way.
Throughout these stages of development in the commercial space race, Virgin Galactic will continue to service passengers. The company has roughly 600 pre-sold passenger tickets that will need to be honored, and now feels the current Virgin Galactic space flight program can safely begin to do so. They are also now able to do so since the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration granted it a full commercial carrier license in late June. This achievement might even be considered as substantial as the latest Virgin Galactic space flight given its importance. Without it, the company’s participation in space tourism would be on hold.
“Tapping into Sir Richard’s expertise and long history of creating amazing customer experiences will be invaluable as we work to open the wonder of space travel and create awe-inspiring journeys for our customers.” – Michael Colglazier, CEO, Virgin Galactic
Branson’s Role Moving Forward
Branson accompanied the flight crew on this latest mission for important purposes. Because this Virgin Galactic space flight was to evaluate the flight experience, Branson’s insights and knowledge was certainly valuable. But it also reflected his commitment to the commercial space race, which will be crucial in alluring passengers and investors alike. Roughly nine days later, Bezos successfully launched his Blue Horizon into space as well. This resulted in a subsequent drop in Virgin Galactic stock values. While most believe this was transient and reactive, it will remain essential that Branson remain the face of the company.
Part of Branson’s influence on the commercial space race will involve his experience in air travel manufacturing and production. Once modifications and design changes are made, the next step for Virgin Galactic will be to streamline production. While the Virgin Galactic space crafts are built to last at least 10 years, several hundred will be needed. Likewise, efficiencies in production will be needed in order for the company to ensure profitability long-term. This is an area where Branson will also provide valuable input.
Building a Consumer Base for the Future
Without question, safety and a positive customer experience will be important in attracting passengers in the commercial space race. But at the same time, so will affordability. In total, there are 1.5 million decamillionaires in the world (worth tens of millions). For these individuals, the $250,000 ticket price isn’t too far-fetched. But as competition heats up in the commercial space race, a lower price may entice this market target to go elsewhere. Virgin Galactic certainly has great potential to succeed in this area. Only time will tell, however, if they can meet the challenge and come out on top.
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