Virgin Galactic enters spaceflight hiatus

Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, far left, and CEO Michael Colglazier, far right, stand with the crew of the Galactic 07 mission.

Virgin Galactic

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Overview: Suspended at the edge

VSS Unity was a good suborbital spaceship. But Virgin Galactic needs a great suborbital spaceship.

As Unity heads into retirement after last weekend’s launch, it’s worth looking at the vehicle’s final tally: 12 spaceflights over six years, carrying 37 people to space.

Those are solid numbers for a privately-developed spacecraft. But it’s a far cry from the forecast Virgin Galactic sold investors on – more than 3,000 “cumulative passengers flown” by 2023 – when it went public five years ago.

Virgin Galactic’s leadership has clearly known for a while that it would need a more robust, efficient solution than the company’s SpaceShipTwo and SpaceShipThree classes of vehicles. 

Three years ago, when CEO Michael Colglazier first told me about the company’s plan for the “Delta” class, the plan was for Unity to have two successors, VSS Imagine and VSS Inspire, before making the jump to Delta vehicles. 

VSS Unity will fly no more. And Virgin Galactic says VSS Imagine and VSS Inspire will never fly, instead being used for development and testing of its Delta class on the ground.

“Our Delta class ships are powerful economic engines. Because of their breakthrough capacity and revenue generation, we are choosing to leapfrog past our third-generation ship, VSS Imagine, and move directly to our fourth generation, the Delta Class,” Colglazier said on an earnings call last year.

But that leaves a hiatus before the first Delta spacecraft debuts, with the key target of a first commercial flight in 2026.

As a reminder, human spacecraft development is often years delayed, and Virgin Galactic has in the past been no exception: Virgin Galactic was supposed to begin spaceflights in 2010, but didn’t until 2018. And after it went public, the company’s commercial flights were supposed to begin in early 2020 but didn’t until June 2023.

The company’s on a ticking cash clock, too. It had nearly $870 million in cash and equivalents on hand as of March, while burning about $1 billion of negative free cash flow over the last two years. 

That’s a staggering rate and – taking the company’s track record and the broader history of human spaceflight vehicle development into account – Virgin Galactic should spend at least another $1 billion before a Delta spacecraft starts flying passengers. 

The company’s already taking belt-tightening measures, such as layoffs late last year and a reverse stock split this week to get its stock back above $1 a share after a steady slide over the last three years.

Virgin Galactic’s future in space is then suspended on the edge of this question, which is not about the debut of Delta but the cadence: Can the company get its first Delta spaceship, within its first year or two, flying at a pace 10 times more frequent than Unity?

Even if Virgin Galactic reaps higher revenue per flight with Delta – with plans for six passengers per flight at $600,000 a seat, netting $3.6 million per trip – the company needs that future spacecraft flying weekly, not quarterly or even monthly, and soon.

What’s up

  • Boeing’s Starliner has a fifth helium leak, which NASA disclosed in a blog post and identified after the spacecraft docked with the ISS. But the agency said engineers’ evaluation found there is “plenty of margin” in the spacecraft’s helium supply based on current leak rates. – NASA
  • Eight former SpaceX employees sue Elon Musk for harassment, in an expansion of the complaint that the employees, fired in 2022, have been pursuing via a U.S. labor board case. – NBC News
  • ISS emergency was a false alarm, and no crew were in danger, NASA said. The agency explained that audio of an emergency simulation was accidentally broadcast publicly. The update was issued roughly 90 minutes after the apparent false alarm. – NBC News
  • FAA will not require a Starship mishap investigation, saying in a statement that SpaceX’s fourth test flight of the monster rocket was “within the scope” of the regulator’s expectations. – Read more
  • Study of Inspiration4 private astronauts found women may be ‘more tolerant to spaceflight,’ according to research papers published from biomedical data collected during the mission. – Fox Weather / The New York Times
  • Armenia signs the Artemis Accords, the 43rd country to do so. – NASA
  • FAA evaluating SpaceX plan to begin Starship launches from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, as the company looks to add more infrastructure to the LC-39A pad and as many as 44 launches per year. – FAA
  • Apple expanding satellite messaging service, saying its iOS 18 will add iMessage and SMS texting in addition to its previous Emergency SOS service. – Via Satellite
  • NASA calls off ISS spacewalk for unexplained ‘spacesuit discomfort issue:’ The agency did not specify what the discomfort issue was or why it postponed the 6.5-hour planned EVA by astronauts Tracy Dyson and Matt Dominick. – NASA
  • Kepler demonstrates space laser links with prototypes, in a demo by the Canadian operator with a pair of pathfinder satellites. – Kepler
  • Stoke completes first test firing of engine to power its Nova rocket, as the company continues to develop the vehicle that’s planned to be fully reusable. – Stoke

Industry maneuvers

Boldly going

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On the horizon

  • June 13: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Starlink satellites from Florida.
  • June 17: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches SES satellite from Florida.
  • June 18: Boeing Starliner crew flight test returns from the ISS.
  • June 18: Rocket Lab Electron launches Kineis satellites from New Zealand.
  • June 18: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Starlink satellites from Florida.

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