by Douglas Messier
After years of moving step by step,
ferociously eventually, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is set to throw down the gauntlet to Richard Branson’s rival Virgin Galactic next week by announcing how people can buy tickets to space on Blue’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle.
Blue Origin has a signup form on its website where people can sign up to receive an email with details at 12 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, May 5. Company officials have previously said tickets would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. Blue Origin completed a dress rehearsal for a crewed flight earlier this month.
Virgin Galactic is set to announced first quarter earnings the day before at 5 p.m. EDT. The company is expected to report a significant loss with minimal or no revenues as it struggles to complete the flight test program for its VSS Unity suborbital vehicle. Virgin Galactic’s net lost was $273 million for 2020, including $74 million net loss for the fourth quarter.
Interestingly, today is the 8th anniversary of the first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo. VSS Enterprise completed a 16-second burn before landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port where Branson was there to congratulate the pilots.
That day, the British billionaire announced a pending ticket price increase from $200,000 to $250,000. Virgin Galactic currently has deposits from about 600 people. The company has said it will raise prices again for the next tranche of ticket holders.
Within two weeks of that first powered flight in 2013, Branson was talking about dressing up as Santa Claus and inaugurating commercial service on Christmas Day from Virgin Galactic’s operating base at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
It was all around bad idea given the amount of preparation work required for such a flight. People would be working their asses off all through the holidays in middle of the New Mexico desert as the days got shorter and the nights longer. If the desert there is anything like the Mojave at Christmas time, it is a bleak place, indeed.
Then on Christmas day — when they should be celebrating at home with their family and friends — Virgin’s employees would be out there watching their boss dressed in a Santa suit go where more than 500 people had gone before.
It didn’t seem like a very appealing prospect. It was certainly the last thing I wanted to be reporting on that day. Was nothing sacred?
I also figured it was impossible. At the time, SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid motor burned so roughly that they didn’t dare fire it in flight for longer than 20 seconds for fear of damaging the ship and injuring the pilots. It seemed highly improbable to me that Virgin would solve its engine problems and complete a rigorous flight test program in the eight months before Christmas 2013.
Eight years after that first powered test, Virgin Galactic still hasn’t completed SpaceShipTwo’s flight test program. The company is now forecasting to begin space tourism flights in early 2022. And it is about to face serious competition from a company owned by the richest man in the world.
Well, good luck with that. You’re going to need it.