Home News Virgin Galactic launching manned suborbital flight this month

Virgin Galactic launching manned suborbital flight this month

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Virgin Galactic expects to shoot its VSS Unity spaceship into suborbit for the first time in New Mexico between Nov. 19 and 23, the company announced Thursday.

The rocket flew from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico on two occasions earlier this year without powering up its motors. Those were glide flights, whereby the mothership VMS Eve carried the Unity on its underbelly partway to space, allowing the rocket to break away and float back down to Earth as part of the company’s test-flight program in preparation for powered launches into space.

In the upcoming test, the Unity will detach from Eve and ignite its motors to shoot to the edge of space at 50 miles up, said CEO Michael Colglazier during a third-quarter earnings conference call with investors.

“It will mark the first human space flight ever to depart from New Mexico,” Colglazier said.

Two more powered flights are also planned for early next year, the first of which will include four Virgin Galactic employees in the passenger cabin. The third will include company founder Sir Richard Branson. The latter flights will likely occur toward the end of the first quarter.

“At this stage, we’re on track for each of those flights,” Colglazier said.

The move to powered flights into space marks a major turning point in the company’s flight-test program, placing it on the cusp of commercial operations, Colglazier said. But testing will continue to move in a “slow and measured way” to fully assess system performance on each flight, assure safety and prepare the six-passenger rocket for maximum customer experience before carrying paying passengers to space.

That could mean additional test flights in coming months, depending on assessments by company engineers, Colglazier said.

In the first upcoming flight in mid-November, the two pilots will test upgrades made to the rocket’s flight control system and a number of features in the passenger cabin, such as reclining seats and high-tech cameras, said Mike Moses, president of space missions and safety.

“We’ll have test mannequins strapped into the reclining seats,” Moses said. “… During the flight, we’ll assess all modifications or changes that may be needed.”

The flight, which will also carry three NASA research payloads, will provide data for two final verification reports needed to receive a commercial spaceflight license from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Construction of Virgin Galactic’s next two spaceships at its manufacturing center in California is also well advanced. The second rocket is fully assembled and will be rolled out for ground testing early next year, Colglazier said. Assembly will also begin on the third rocket in first-quarter 2021.

However, COVID-19 has slowed progress.

“Building spaceships in the pandemic is less efficient than normal because it’s close-quarter work,” Colglazier said. “Work is progressing, albeit slower than expected.”

But with powered test flights set to launch and Branson expected to board the first passenger trip to space by March, the company is preparing to step up manufacturing to produce full fleets of rockets and motherships. It’s multi-year goal is to reach 400 commercial spaceflights per year at Spaceport America and at other spaceports where Virgin Galactic expects to operate in more countries across the globe, Colglazier said.

The company believes it can eventually generate $1 billion in annual revenue at each spaceport, beginning with New Mexico.

“$1 billion per year per spaceport,” Colglazier said. “That’s a powerful economic impact that will come first to New Mexico.”

To date, about 600 customers have paid $250,000 each for a ticket to space, where they’ll experience a few minutes floating in microgravity and viewing the Earth below. The company temporarily stopped selling seats in 2019, although it launched a program last December for prospective customers to put down $1,000 deposits to reserve a place at the front of the line to buy tickets when sales begin again. So far, about 900 people have reserved spots, the company reported Thursday.

That reservation program will end this December. The company expects to relaunch ticket sales following Branson’s flight to space early next year.

Virgin Galactic won’t begin generating significant revenue until commercial rocket flights commence, although it does expect to earn $400,000 from the three NASA experiments that will fly on the Unity this month. It reported a $77 million net loss from July-September and a $199 million accumulated loss for the first nine months of this year as it continues to invest in research and development in preparation for commercial launch.

But it’s generated a lot of investor interest since going public on the New York Stock Exchange last fall. During the third quarter, it sold 23.6 million shares of common stock, raising $440 million.

“We’re in a strong cash position, with $742 million in cash and cash equivalents as of Sept. 30,” Chief Financial Officer Joe Campagna told investors.

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©2020 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)

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