Layoffs at Virgin Galactic & The Spaceship Company

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo take off at 7:11 a.m. PST from the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Kenneth Brown) is reporting that there were about 40 layoffs from Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company earlier this month as they prepare to begin commercial flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

A Virgin Galactic spokesman confirmed the layoffs in a statement via email.

Recently we separated a small number of our team in order to position our organization for the drive to commercial operations following our successful recent spaceflight, and make room for new skill sets that we need to bring in over the course of this year.  In total we separated around 40 people, less than 5% of our total workforce across Virgin Galactic and TSC. We are offering support to those impacted and sincerely thank them for their contributions, and wish them well for the future.

The news comes on the heels of a decision by SpaceX to lay off about 10 percent of its roughly 6,000 employees. Stratolaunch, which like Virgin Galactic is based in Mojave, announced last week that it was laying off about 50 employees as it down scaled plans for boosters to air launch from its massive aircraft.

Appearing on CBS This Morning on Thursday to announce a partnership with Under Armour for space apparel, Virgin Chairman Richard Branson laid out a timeline for the completion of SpaceShipTwo flight tests at the Mojave Air and Space Port and the move to New Mexico.

“I will hope to go up in the middle of this year myself,” Branson said. “We’ve got another test flight in a handful of weeks taking place from Mojave, then we’ll have another one a few weeks later, then another one. And then we move everything to New Mexico, where we have a beautiful spaceport.”

Branson, who has spent 14 years making schedule predictions the majority of which haven’t come true, plans to be on the first commercial flight out of the $225 million, taxpayer funded spaceport outside of Truth or Consequences.

The schedule appears reasonable. However, it assumes that nothing serious goes wrong with the rest of the flight test program, which involves Virgin Galactic’s only operating SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, and the sole WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, VMS Eve.

Flight tests are specifically designed to find problems so they don’t occur later during operational launches.  Last year, testing was held up for about two months after engineers found a crack in a major structural component of SpaceShipTwo. It’s not known how they addressed the problem, but VSS Unity flew a successful flight above 50 miles on Dec. 13.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic’s main rival for suborbinauts, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, has shifted the schedule for flying people aboard its New Shepard spacecraft from early to late this year. It’s not clear why this decision was made; however, Blue Origin has repeatedly delayed the start of crewed flights aboard the system.

On Wednesday, New Shepard flew its 10th suborbital flight from the company’s facility in west Texas. The vehicle carried eight payloads sponsored by NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program.

Blue Origin has not yet started selling tickets to the public or announced a price for rides. Virgin Galactic’s 600 or so ticket holders have agreed to pay $200,000 or $250,000 depending upon when they put down deposits. Branson has said the price will go up for new reservation holders.