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WhiteKnightTwo Returns to New Mexico as Virgin Galactic Pitches Suborbital Flights to Researchers

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
February 27, 2023
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WhiteKnightTwo Returns to New Mexico as Virgin Galactic Pitches Suborbital Flights to Researchers
WhiteKnightTwo on approach to Spaceport America. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

WhiteKnightTwo took to the air again on Monday morning. Virgin Galactic’s Eve mothership, named after company founder Richard Branson’s mum, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port at Rutan Field in California. After flying in circles over the Mojave Desert, it headed east to New Mexico where it flew circle over Spaceport America before landing on the facility’s only runway after a flight of 5 hours 33 minutes.

It was only WhiteKnightTwo’s second flight in 16 months. The 14-year old proof-of-concept carrier plane, which its builder, Scaled Composites, had not intended to enter commercial service, had undergone a series of modifications for over a year to prepare it to do exactly that before returning to its operational base in New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic had originally planned to take Eve and the rocket plane it air launches, VSS Unity, out of service for only four months at the end of 2021. The vehicles would then enter commercial service in the first quarter of 2022. Commercial flights are now set to begin – if the current schedule doesn’t slip again – in the second quarter of 2023.

As Eve flew over California’s High Desert, other Virgin Galactic’s officials were more than 1,300 km away pitching Unity’s capabilities for science at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Broomfield, Colorado. Always eager to court the press, Vice President Sirisha Bandla gave a shoutout to reporter Jeff Foust for being the first to tweet out that Eve was in the air again.

Bandla was on stage in place of the scheduled speaker, Virgin Galactic President Mike Moses, who was busy overseeing WhiteKnightTwo’s flight back to its operating base. Given that his appearance had been scheduled well in advance, it’s unlikely that the company had timed the flight to coincide with the conference’s opening day. But, it was helpful.

It’s more likely the flight to New Mexico occurred on Monday due to a combination of delays in the flight test program (which we’ll discuss in a moment) and a period of bad weather that had struck the High Desert during the week before. Mojave was pounded with 80 mph winds, rain, ice, snow and freezing temperatures that closed highways, knocked 18-wheel tractor trailers over on their sides, damaged roofs and doors, upended trees, and brought bus and train travel to a screeching halt.

Local residents are a hardy lot accustomed to 55 mph winds that we call Tuesday. (There are a lot of Tuesdays in Mojave.) But, this was above and beyond what is considered normal.

SpaceShipTwo configured for a researcher to tend to his or her experiment. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Things were much calmer in Colorado where only patches of snow could be seen. Bandla and her colleagues were pitching three minutes of microgravity time on a SpaceShipTwo suborbital flight. Racks holding four of Virgin Galactic’s equivalent of space shuttle mid-deck lockers would replace the four seats in Unity. Or there could be three racks and a seat for a researcher who would tend his or her experiment.

Flying to space is an enticing prospect for anyone. But, at $150,000 just for one mid-deck locker (the seat would cost extra), it wouldn’t be cheap. The flights would be lucrative for revenue starved Virgin Galactic. Fully booked research missions, carrying four racks with four mid-deck lockers each, would bring in $2.4 million. Later versions of SpaceShipTwo with six seats replaced with lockers would generate $3.6 million in revenue.

Virgin Galactic has reserved 100 of its first 1,000 seats for research flights. The rest will fly paying passengers, some of whom put down deposits way back in 2005 when the company was promising commercial service would begin as soon as 2008.

It is in the passenger flights where revenue projections get trickier. Hundreds of early adopters put down as little as 10% on a $200,000 ticket. Virgin Galactic raised the price to $250,000 after SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight in April 2013. (Branson was musing about flying to space that Christmas day dressed as Santa Claus.) Current ticket holders are being charged $450,000 per seat, with $150,000 down. Virgin Galactic would keep $25,000 if the ticket holder backed out.

Virgin Galactic is planning to begin commercial service in the second quarter with the four-seat Unity flying once per month. It would eventually be joined by a second rocket plane, VSS Imagine, that would fly twice per month with six passengers aboard. Advanced Delta class spacecraft, capable of flying more frequently, would begin service in 2026.

Virgin Galactic’s CEO, former Disney executive Michael Colglazier, has stressed the need for non-flight revenues from wealthy passengers and the entourages that will travel to New Mexico to watch them fly. This makes sense; Disney gets only part of its revenues from ticket sales. There’s also hotels, food, entertainment, souvenirs and assorted other things for park visitors to spend their money on.

To that end, Virgin Galactic has announced plans to build a resort in the desert near Spaceport America where passengers and some of their guests would stay prior to the suborbital flights. Ticket holders will spend three days in training, fly on day four and then have a big celebration. Their guests will need things to do while the ticket holders are occupied during the day.

Meanwhile, Back at HQ

If Eve flying back to its operating base in New Mexico was helpful for Bandla and her colleagues in Broomfield, it was doubly so for Colglazier and executives back in California who were set to deliver fourth quarter and full-year financial results on Tuesday.

Virgin Galactic has had financial problems since Branson announced plans to fly tourists to space in September 2004. The company has lost more than $1 billion since the first day of trading in 2019. The stock, which once rose to $62.80 on optimistic projections for the start of commercial flights, has taken a beating. It closed at $5.50 on Monday.

While Eve’s flight back to New Mexico was a clear demonstration of progress, it was – paradoxically – also a sign of another delay. During a quarterly earnings call on Nov. 3, Colglazier said:

Subject to successful completion of each task, we expect the first test flight for Eve to occur in early January, if not before, with the ship returning to its home base in New Mexico shortly thereafter. After the verification test flights of Eve, we will move to a glide flight of VSS Unity, and then to a spaceflight with Virgin Galactic mission specialist on board. The crew will assess various elements of the astronaut experience and make final refinements to our training program for our first commercial passengers.

As always, our approach to test flights is methodical and iterative, and following the sequence of test flights, commercial service is expected to commence with the Italian Air Force Research Mission, followed by private astronaut spaceflights. In the coming weeks, we will begin communicating with our founder astronauts regarding their flight assignments for their life-changing trip to space.

Eve’s return to flight didn’t actually occur until Feb. 14, with its flight to New Mexico 13 days later. The final suborbital flight test with Virgin Galactic employees aboard has shifted from the first to the second quarter. As delays go, it’s a very minor one. But, it’s par for the course. It remains to be seen whether the latest schedule holds.