Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson Aims to Fly to Space Before Jeff Bezos

Richard Branson wears the SpaceShipTwo flight suit. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Fourth of July weekend could include some extra fireworks this year.

Updated with statement from Virgin Galactic on June 8, 2021 at 10:53 a.m. PDT.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

It looks like Richard Branson could beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos to space next month.

Virgin Galactic is working on a plan to send Branson on a suborbital flight aboard the VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane over the July 4 holiday weekend, according to a source who requested anonymity. The flight is contingent upon obtaining an operator’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

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Virgin Galactic Files to Raise $1 Billion in Stock Sale

A view from inside the cockpit. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to issue up to $1 billion in additional stock on Friday at the start of the long Memorial Day weekend. Friday is a traditional day to dump news you don’t want a lot of media coverage about; a long holiday weekend is especially useful for that purpose.

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Breaking Down Virgin Galactic’s Latest Flight Test

Take me out to the black,
Tell them I ain’t comin’ back.
Burn the land and boil the sea,
You can’t take the sky from me….

— “The Ballad of Serenity,” Sonny Rhodes

“After so many years and so much hard work, New Mexico has finally reached the stars.”

— New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

By now, you’ve probably read the rhetoric flourishes in Virgin Galactic’s press release about the company’s first suborbital flight test in more than two years that was conducted on Saturday. Suffice to say, if the stars were located at the altitude that SpaceShipTwo actually reached (55.45 miles/89.2 km), they would take the sky away at the same time they burned the land and boiled the seas. Being suborbital, VSS Unity wouldn’t have helped anyone escape the inferno.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. So, let’s just put doomsday out of our minds. It’s time to break down what the flight test accomplished, what comes next, and why 27 months passed between powered flights. And what about Jeff Bezos?

Ready? Let’s go!

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Virgin Galactic Completes First Human Spaceflight from Spaceport America, New Mexico

VSS Unity during its first suborbital flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

LAS CRUCES, N.M. May 22, 2021 (Virgin Galactic PR) — Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: SPCE) (“The Company or Virgin Galactic”) today completed its third spaceflight and the first ever spaceflight from Spaceport America, New Mexico. Today’s flight sees New Mexico become the third US state to launch humans into space.

VSS Unity achieved a speed of Mach 3 after being released from the mothership, VMS Eve, and reached space, at an altitude of 55.45 miles before gliding smoothly to a runway landing at Spaceport America.

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Virgin Galactic Reports $130 Million Q1 Net Loss, Delays Next Flight Test

Flight test, delayed from February, postponed again due to problem discovered on WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. Company will update schedule next week.

LAS CRUCES, N.M., May 10, 2021 (Virgin Galactic PR) – Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: SPCE) (“Virgin Galactic” or the “Company”), a vertically integrated aerospace and space travel company, today announced its financial results for the first quarter ended March 31, 2021.

“We continue to make strides towards our strategic objectives and have solid momentum as we focus on completing our flight test program,” said Michael Colglazier, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Galactic. “We are committed to delivering one of the world’s most unique and transformational customer experiences, with safety at the core of everything we do. Our greatest asset is our incredibly talented group of employees, and the strength of the leadership team we have assembled for the next phase of our journey.”

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Book: Virgin Galactic’s President Moses Believed Company’s Flight Projections were a “Pipe Dream”

Richard Branson’s space tourism company used similar numbers to go public on the New York Stock Exchange. Were investors duped?
Michael Moses

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Nicholas Schmidle’s book about Virgin Galactic and SpaceShipTwo is coming out on Tuesday. In an essay he wrote for The New York Times, he recounted how Virgin Galactic President Michael Moses didn’t believe the company’s own flight projections when they were presented to him by its then-chief financial officer.

At one point, I was leaked a cache of internal documents. Some revealed the depth of Virgin Galactic’s oftentimes shaky grip on reality.

In 2013, Mike Moses, at the time Virgin Galactic’s senior vice president for operations, was sent an email containing a chart from Virgin Galactic’s chief financial officer at the time, Ken Sunshine. The chart showed a radical uptick in flight operations, projecting 75 flights in 2015, 194 in 2016, 229 in 2017 and 264 in 2018. “No chance in hell,” replied Mr. Moses, who is Beth’s husband. “These numbers are a pipe dream.” (Mr. Moses, through a representative, declined to comment on those emails.)

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Virgin Galactic Delays Space Tourism Flights to 2022, Lost $273 Million Last Year

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo fly right overhead. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
  • Rollout of Second Spaceship Scheduled to Take Place on March 30
  • Announced Expected Timing of Revenue-Generating Flight with the Italian Air Force
  • Next Rocket-Powered Spaceflight Targeted to Occur in May

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (Virgin Galactic PR) — Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: SPCE) (“Virgin Galactic” or the “Company”), a vertically integrated aerospace and space travel company, today announced its financial results for the fourth quarter and full year ended December 31, 2020.

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Virgin Galactic Stock Plunges as Company Delays Space Tourism Flights to 2022

SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity arrives at Spaceport America aboard WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Shares of Virgin Galactic plunged sharply on Thursday as the company announced that it was postponing the start of commercial suborbital space tourism flights until 2022 due to additional delays in completing SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity‘s test program.

Shares plunged in after hours trading to $36.69 after opening the day at $45.04. Most of the decline occurred in after hours trading following the release of Virgin Galactic quarterly and full year 2020 earning report.

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Why Virgin Galactic Went SPAC

Richard Branson celebrates the first Virgin Galactic trade on the New York Stock Exchange. (Credit Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

During the SmallSat Symposium last week, Richard Branson was asked why Virgin Galactic had gone public using a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

“I’m impatient. The SPAC gets through all of the rigmarole of public companies. Yes, I thought, that’s great, let’s do it,” he replied.

Branson was half right. A SPAC makes it a lot easier for a company to go public. But, impatience was probably not the main reason Virgin Galactic went SPAC.

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2020 a Busy Year for Suborbital Launches

New Shepard landing on the pad in West Texas on October 13, 2020, with the NASA Lunar Landing Sensor Demo onboard. (Credit: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Suborbital launch used to be a sleepy field that rarely attracted much public attention. Let’s face it, atmospheric research and student experiments are not front-page news. Sounding rockets don’t have the majesty and power of a Falcon 9 or Atlas V.

In recent years, exciting new entrants in the field and widespread streaming of launches have made suborbital flights exciting. Last year saw important suborbital flight tests by SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and Skyrora that garnered worldwide interest.

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Virgin Galactic Hopes Fourth Time is a Charm

WhiteKnightTwo takes SpaceShipTwo off the ground. Credit: Virgin Galactic

After an aborted suborbital flight in December and one two years ago that nearly destroyed the ship and killed the three-member crew,* Virgin Galactic will try to put its four-passenger rocket plane into space for a third time later this month from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The flight window will open on February 13 with additional day for the rest of the month. It will carry two pilots and a load of microgravity experiments. The flight will be a repeat of one that aborted in December when SpaceShipTwo’s computer shut down the ship’s engine prematurely.

The flight will test modifications designed to prevent another abort. It will also test improvements to flight controls and horizontal stabilizers. A failure involving the latter nearly destroyed the ship on its second suborbital flight on Feb. 22, 2019.

There have been two fatal accidents during SpaceShipTwo’s development and testing that have killed four people. The accidents included a test stand explosion that killed three engineers and the in-flight breakup of the first SpaceShipTwo that killed the co-pilot.

For more information about the Feb. 22, 2019 flight, see below.

* As Virgin Galactic Crew Celebrated Second Suborbital Flight, Problems Loomed Behind the Scenes, Parabolic Arc

Virgin Galactic ordered safety probe after wing of spacecraft was damaged during 2019 flight, book says, The Washington Post

As Virgin Galactic Crew Celebrated Second Suborbital Flight, Problems Loomed Behind the Scenes

Chief Pilot David Mackay celebrates a successful flight with champagne as Chief Astronaut Beth Moses looks on. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Newly arrived back on Earth after a quick visit to space, Virgin Galactic Chief Astronaut Beth Moses was effusive as she described the suborbital flight she had just taken aboard the company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity.

“Richard, you’re going to love it!” she told Virgin Chairman Richard Branson, who had remotely monitored the Feb. 22, 2019 flight that had taken place over California’s Mojave Desert.

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Upcoming Launches: Falcon 9, Starship, Soyuz and SpaceShipTwo

Falcon 9 lifts off with 60 Starlink satellites. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

Tuesday, February 2

Launch Vehicle: Soyuz 2.1b
Payload: Lotus S-1 signal intelligence satellite
Launch Time: 3:45 a.m. EST (2045 UTC)
Launch Site: Plesetsk Cosmodrome

NET Tuesday, February 2

Launch Vehicle: SpaceX Starship SN9
Mission: Flight Test
Launch Time: TBD
Launch Site: Boca Chica, Texas

Flight date depends upon completion of review and the issuing of a launch license by Federal Aviation Administration.

Wednesday, February 3

Launch Vehicle: Falcon 9
Payloads: 60 Starlink broadband satellites
Launch Time: 5:57 a.m. EST (1057 UTC)
Launch Site: Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Thursday, February 4

Launch Vehicle: Falcon 9
Payloads: 60 Starlink broadband satellites
Launch Time: 1:19 a.m. EST (0619 UTC)
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida

NET Saturday, February 13

Launch Vehicle: VSS Unity/VMS Eve
Payload: Two pilots, microgravity experiments
Launch Time: TBD
Launch Site: Spaceport America, New Mexico

Repeat of a flight test aborted on Dec. 12 due the computer losing contact with the engine. Launch opportunities extend through February. First of three additional tests intended to complete SpaceShipTwo’s initial flight test program.

Window for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Suborbital Flight Opens Dec. 11

SpaceShipTwo fires its engine. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (Virgin Galactic PR) — Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: SPCE), today announced its new flight window since it paused the spaceflight preparations in response to state guidelines from the New Mexico Department of Health to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The new flight window will open on December 11, pending good weather conditions and technical readiness. This flight expects to fulfill a number of objectives, including testing elements of the customer cabin as well as assessing the upgraded horizontal stabilizers and flight controls during boost. The flight will also carry payloads as part of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program.

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Virgin Galactic Delays SpaceShipTwo Flight Test Due to COVID-19

SpaceShipTwo Unity in its first powered flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic’s first suborbital flight in nearly two years will have to wait a bit longer due to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.

The company has postponed a powered flight test of SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity that had been scheduled to take place between Nov. 19-23 from Spaceport America after New Mexico reenacted its shelter in place order as the rising number coronavirus cases have begun to overwhelm hospitals.

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