Will Space Tourists Finally Get a Ride, Air – Space Magazine

Will Space Tourists Finally Get a Ride?

Virgin Galactic has moved into its New Mexico Spaceport. Let the flights begin.

There’s something flying over Spaceport America on this warm October afternoon, and as usual, it’s not a spacecraft. It’s an Extra 300, owned by Virgin Galactic. Alone in the cockpit is company chief pilot David Mackay, who’s doing tight, descending corkscrews designed to spike the G-forces.

Mackay doesn’t live here in New Mexico—not yet—but his presence here on an ordinary work day indicates the progress Virgin is making toward launching its suborbital space tourism business. Another pilot has relocated to Spaceport America full-time, and a new one is already training.

The test flight team, like the rest of Virgin’s employees at Spaceport America, is preparing for the first commercial operations of SpaceShipTwo and the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane that launches it on short hops to the edge of space. “I think we’re making history here,” Mackay says during a stroll through Virgin’s hangar. “We’ve designed two aircraft and a rocket motor for a brand new industry.” The first flight from New Mexico is expected next June.

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This story is a selection from the December/January issue of Air & Space magazine

It’s been a long time coming. In October 2009, Virgin Galactic announced that flights from Spaceport America would begin within two years. The facility was declared open in 2011, but that was followed by years of delays and a fatal in-flight accident (there had been another deadly accident on the ground in 2007) as the launch system was under development in Mojave, California.

Residents of two New Mexico counties have chafed at the wait, having voted more than a decade ago in favor of a tax to help pay for the spaceport’s construction. With $209 million of their money already spent on the project, including a $7 million runway extension, the taxpayers have seen little return on their investment so far.

Things started to gear up last May, however, when Virgin founder Richard Branson announced that the company is ready to begin flights as soon as a second SpaceShipTwo vehicle is complete. (VSS Unity is already being used for testing.) “Our Virgin Galactic adventure has been intertwined with New Mexico and Spaceport America right from the start,” Branson told the assembled media. “Today, I could not be more excited to announce that…we are now ready to bring New Mexico a world-first, world-class spaceline.”

Five months later, there’s a real sense of anticipation at this remote, eerily beautiful spaceport. If Virgin’s schedule holds, next summer’s inaugural flight will be a watershed moment for the nascent space tourism business. Ordinary rich people—as opposed to the super-rich who have visited the International Space Station—will routinely be able to buy a $250,000 ticket to space.

Branson has always said he will be the first passenger, a claim he reiterated at an Air Force Association meeting in September. “We’ll do a few more final test flights and then I’ll go up,” he said.

After years of delay that may seem sudden—VSS Unity has flown just 12 times, and only twice to space—but Virgin maintains that the final tests are only needed to validate earlier testing and will go fast. Unity will fly again before year’s end, this time with the passenger cabin fully outfitted. Once the entire launch system is proven to work in its final configuration in Mojave, the pilots will then take several flights to familiarize themselves with flying in New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic’s pilot corps is an accomplished group of aviators that includes commercial pilots like Mackay, former NASA astronaut Rick Sturckow, and U.S. Air Force combat veteran Kelly “Cosmic” Latimer, who later became a NASA research test pilot. Most of the pilots have played a role in developing the vehicles, either with The SpaceShip Company that manufactures them or with Virgin itself.

The FAA will have to sign off on those vehicles before passenger flights begin. Up until now, the company has been granted a license only to fly “non-deployed scientific, experimental, or inert payloads.”

Safety remains a sensitive subject. In 2014, the first SpaceShipTwo experimental vehicle, VSS Enterprise, cracked apart during flight, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury when it crashed into the Mojave Desert. Investigators blamed co-pilot error and pointed to deficiencies in Virgin’s training procedures, but found no show-stopping problems with the vehicle design.

Branson’s determination to ride to space himself may help replace memories of the crash in the public mind. “I certainly won’t go into space before brave test pilots feel 100 percent comfortable that we’ve checked every box,” he told the Associated Press earlier this year.

During my visit in early October, three technicians in white protective suits are working inside the Virgin hangar on a gangly, twin-fuselage aircraft. It’s a WhiteKnightTwo carrier craft named Eve, which now resides in New Mexico full time. The massive hangar, large enough for three such airplanes, smells faintly of epoxy. “I can’t wait until SpaceShipTwo moves here,” Mackay says.

The Extra is in the hangar as well, and Mackay eyes it eagerly as he speaks. He’s a seasoned front man for the company, but he’s more comfortable in a cockpit, having first flown with the Royal Air Force, then with Virgin Atlantic, and now as chief pilot for Virgin Galactic. Among his other achievements, he piloted SpaceShipTwo during a February 2019 test flight to an altitude of 56 miles, making him the only Scot who has ever been—just barely—to space. (The X-15 rocketplane flew higher in the 1960s, as did SpaceShipOne when it won the XPRIZE in 2004.)

A newly installed flight simulator sits along one hangar wall, nested inside a cupola of dark drapes. A pair of employees in street clothes is testing the simulator’s data connections to operations centers here and in Mojave. Having a high-fidelity sim on the premises is vital to transitioning all training and flight testing to New Mexico. “We are spending less time in Mojave,” Mackay says of the pilots’ workload. “The bias now is being here more, and there less.”

Before long Mackay excuses himself, steps over to the Extra and is soon soaring into the uncommonly cloudy sky. The Gs of the planned suborbital flights don’t peak above a relatively mild 4.2, but these aerobatic flights help keep the pilots conditioned.

Apart from this activity inside the hangar, there are more clues that the long-delayed dream of routine spaceflights over the New Mexico desert may actually be close to happening. The company unveiled its new mission control room and the Spaceport’s customer lounges and other interior rooms in August. In mid-October, it introduced the hip, futuristic “spacewear” designed by Under Armour for VG passengers.

Since last spring, the number of staff here in New Mexico, from pilots to electricians, has tripled. Last year there were only 40 Virgin employees at Spaceport America, but that swelled to 120 this year and should hit 160 next year.

Perhaps the most hopeful sign of progress is slapped to the wall of an office near the empty mission control room: an Aztec pyramid of Post-It notes detailing all the public services needed to pull off a landmark future event. The National Guard, local firefighters, and sheriff’s deputies will all be involved. At the top of the pyramid, one note stands alone: “First Flight.”

Passengers will walk through the doors, load into a Land Rover and meet SpaceShipTwo on the flight line. The vehicle will be attached to its carrier ship by then. Spectators will have a good view of the runway as the WhiteKnightTwo takes off and circles up to 50,000 feet. From there, the SpaceShipTwo is dropped and ignited like a missile. A 70-second burn gets the spacecraft on a coasting trajectory to 62 miles altitude, which satisfies both of the commonly used (and somewhat arbitrary) definitions of what qualifies as “space”—50 miles and 100 kilometers. The passengers then unbuckle for five minutes of weightlessness before the long glide back down to the same runway. The whole ride, from walkout to wheels stop, takes under two hours.

Back inside the spaceport, the Gaia room’s digitally enhanced walkway cuts through what Virgin calls the “social center” of its operation. The dark, natural tones and sunken seating areas are intended to remind passengers of the Home Planet as they prepare to leave it, according to Brouwer. Today there are a handful of employees ordering coffee from the impossibly pleasant barista working at a backlit, Italian marble island. In the future, Gaia is where customers will congregate between training sessions and for social events, prepare for departure and celebrate their return with champagne. Interaction with staff is encouraged.

“This is hospitality as Richard sees it,” Brouwer says. As general manager of astronaut relations and hospitality for Virgin, he designed these interiors. His experience is in a select niche of the high-end hospitality market, in remote places “where the location, instead of gold faucets, makes the property luxury.” He has managed estates on several private islands, including Branson’s Necker Island (in the British Virgin Island chain).

Now Brouwer is trailblazing an entirely new kind of venture, the world’s first space tourism operation. In filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (available since Virgin Galactic stock recently became publicly traded), the company describes their target market as “individuals with $10+ million net worth” and a “demonstrated propensity to spend on experiences.”

Virgin is selling more than five minutes of weightlessness, or even five days at Spaceport America, for the quarter-million dollars it charges Future Astronauts. “Having a ticket means being part of a special members club, with special access,” Brouwer says. “I don’t want to say it’s a cult; that’s way too strong, but they do show their passion.”

To keep that passion from cooling during the years of delay, the company has provided ticketholders with tours of the spaceport, run-throughs in simulators, G-flights in the Extra, and meet-ups at solar eclipses. “With a smaller number of people, we have the opportunity to get them more involved,” Brouwer says.

Virgin Galactic’s business plan, as laid out to the SEC, predicts an increasing number of flights as the fleet of vehicles grows. As more people fly, some of the special access will likely fall away, leaving the five-day visit as the core of the experience. Nor will tourism be the only revenue stream. In October, Virgin Galactic and the Italian Air Force signed an agreement to launch scientists doing suborbital experiments. It’s the first time a government agency has reserved a slot for researchers on a commercial suborbital launcher.

The future looks good on paper. Paying flights are projected to start in June with the two existing vehicles: Eve carrying VSS Unity. A second SpaceShipTwo vehicle will enter service in 2020, and a third in 2021. These are already under construction in Mojave. As the fleet expands, the number of customer flights will gradually scale up, building toward five flights a month in 2022.

In the SEC documents, Virgin projected a $104 million loss in 2020, but expects to break even in 2021. By 2023, it expects $274 million in annual earnings, with big profits on each flight. Assuming five of six passenger seats are filled on every flight, that’s $1.25 million in revenue. Operating costs—$121,000 in rocket motor and fuel, nearly $200,000 in customer service and insurance, and another $118,000 in flight operations—leave $820,000 per flight.

Each SpaceShipTwo will be expected to perform five flights per month; the WhiteKnightTwo carriers are each good for 15 monthly flights. At that rate, the Virgin Galactic pilots would be flying every two or three days. According to Mackay, compared to an airline pilot’s schedule, “This is not a particularly stressful job.”

David Bushman scrutinizes one of the spaceport’s concrete launchpads, looking for blemishes on its smooth surface. There’s an ocean of desert around the 98-foot by 98-foot slab, originally built by SpaceX and left unused when that company decided to test its flyback boosters in Florida instead.

Spaceport America assumed ownership of the site and now rents these and other pads to any company that needs the concrete and elbow room to test something dangerous, secretive, or loud. Bushman says his “aerospace engineer” job title should really be “spaceport engineer.” He’s wandering around like any landlord inspecting a property after tenants have moved out. In this case, it’s the smallsat launch company ABL Space Systems, who tested some rocket engines on the slab.

Bushman pauses and aims his phone camera at a pair of bolts rising from the concrete. “These are supposed to be taken off,” he says. “We’ll fix the pad and send them the bill.”

Until recently, this was the day-to-day business of Spaceport America. The operators spent the lean years waiting for Virgin by providing launch range services to companies large and small. Boeing has tested its Starliner crew capsule on high-altitude drop tests; aspiring smallsat launchers UP Aerospace and EXOS are tenants; SpinLaunch, another startup, is testing designs in the spaceport’s Advanced Technology Area; and various industry hypersonic programs have conducted tests here.

Now the place is switching from this odd-job culture to focus on the primary tenant, who’s finally started to move in. “I believe I’m part of the ramp-up,” says Bushman, who left the Dream Chaser spaceplane program at Sierra Nevada last year to join the Spaceport America staff.

Frank Dominguez is an electrical technician who came to work at the spaceport after a decade building gas stations. Now he’s refueling and tending to airplanes, sharing the workload with a multi-tasking maintenance staff that’s more than doubled this year to five. “I never thought I’d be doing this,” he says happily.

The desert surrounding Spaceport America may make it a good place to test rockets, but it doesn’t do Dominguez any favors. “If we need a fuse, we don’t just have it on hand at a store,” he says. “It’s an hour away, so stocking is hard.”

Most new horizontal-launch spaceports—typically existing airports licensed by the FAA—tout their access to existing supply chains and a nearby labor force. But Spaceport America is banking on the idea that its remote location is a plus.

The really valuable real estate here is not underneath your feet but overhead. Look on any map of air traffic over the United States and there will always be a gap over New Mexico, right where Spaceport America sits. The spaceport has access to 6,000 square miles of restricted airspace controlled by its neighbor, the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range. By agreement with the military, Spaceport America officials can open up parts of the government’s restricted airspace very quickly.

This ability to launch and land at will is a critical argument for the Spaceport’s existence. The advantages are real: No overhead airline traffic, no competing for launch windows, no crowds of gawkers watching proprietary experimental spacecraft during testing. And no chance of collateral damage if things go kinetically wrong.

Even after Virgin Galactic is up and running, spaceport managers envision that customers will continue to use its launch areas. “Some companies want to be entirely mobile, and just bring in everything themselves,” Bushman says. “Some want a concrete pad and buildings, others just need a flat spot in the desert.”

Diversity, to a spaceport, is job security, and the operators have their sights set on other emerging industries. Bushman sees an opportunity in space landings, relying on the airspace restrictions and empty expanse of desert to make it an ideal place for science satellites and other fast-moving payloads to return.

Virgin’s second spaceship, VSS Unity, gets a shove from its hybrid engine during its first powered flight in April 2018. (Virgin Galactic) The following February, chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses reacts to the thrill of becoming the first non-test pilot to make a commercial spaceflight during a test of Unity’s passenger cabin. (Virgin Galactic)

“We don’t have to go straight up and down,” says Mackay, the former Virgin Atlantic pilot. “We would need a new spacecraft, because this one isn’t designed to do it, but it could be a starting point. And once you have high-speed, point-to-point, it’s not that big a step to get into orbit. And that opens up even more possibilities.”

Ironically, talk of spinoff ventures points to a vulnerability in Virgin’s plans. Space tourism isn’t the biggest of markets, and everyone’s aware it’s a gamble. “It takes a lot of positivity,” Mackay admits.

But the dozens of staffers now unpacking boxes and setting up offices in Spaceport America hold on to their belief that something great is happening here. The countdown clock is running, and the day that Virgin Galactic’s space tourism business either rises or falls is coming. The final verdict will be delivered in the skies over central New Mexico, and we’re all invited. With a $250,000 ticket in hand, of course.

About Joe Pappalardo

Joe Pappalardo lives with his two shelter dogs in South Texas, a stone’s throw from three commercial spaceports. His most recent book is Spaceport Earth: The Reinvention of Spaceflight.

Virgin Galactic gearing up to start selling suborbital spaceflight tickets again, Space

Virgin Galactic gearing up to start selling suborbital spaceflight tickets again

The company’s One Small Step qualification system launches today.

If you’re looking to book a ride to suborbital space with Virgin Galactic, you shouldn’t have to wait much longer.

More than 600 people have reserved a seat aboard the company’s six-passenger SpaceShipTwo craft, which is designed to carry customers and payloads on brief trips to suborbital space and back.

Virgin Galactic halted ticket sales in December 2018 after its latest SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Unity, reached space for the first time, on a piloted test flight. But that hiatus will soon come to an end, company representatives said.

“In light of continuing, strong progress towards commercial service, Virgin Galactic is now preparing to release its next tranche of seats for sale to the general public,” Virgin Galactic representatives wrote in an update on Tuesday (Feb. 25).

“In the first phase of that process, the company will be launching its new One Small Step qualification process on Wednesday, February 26th, allowing those who are serious about flying to space to register now and be front of line for firm seat reservations, once they become available,” they added.

Qualifying via One Small Step, which you can do here, involves making a refundable $1,000 deposit.

It’ll take a lot more cash to actually go up on VSS Unity, though exactly how much more is not clear at the moment. The most recent ticket price for SpaceShipTwo was $250,000, but Virgin Galactic has not yet revealed what seats will cost when they go on sale again.

SpaceShipTwo is carried aloft by an airplane known as WhiteKnightTwo, which drops the winged spacecraft at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). At that point, SpaceShipTwo’s onboard rocket motor fires up, taking the vehicle up to suborbital space.

Passengers will get to see the curvature of Earth against the blackness of space and experience a few minutes of weightless before coming back down for a runway landing.

VSS Unity has reached the final frontier on two test missions — the December 2018 flight and another one in February 2019. Those flights took off from Mojave, California, where Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing subsidiary, The Spaceship Company, is based. But commercial operations will take place at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

And commercial operations could start soon — perhaps sometime this year. VSS Unity recently relocated to Spaceport America and has begun the final phase of its test campaign.

Virgin Galactic’s vision doesn’t begin and end with VSS Unity. Two more SpaceShipTwo vehicles are currently being built in Mojave, and others will likely follow; the company’s hangar at Spaceport America can accommodate five SpaceShipTwos and two WhiteKnightTwos simultaneously.

Virgin Galactic s VSS Unity space plane arrives at New Mexico spaceport, Space

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity space plane arrives at New Mexico spaceport

Unity is now in the final phase of its test campaign.

Virgin Galactic is one big step closer to flying customers to suborbital space.

The company’s newest SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Unity, arrived yesterday (Feb. 13) at Spaceport America in New Mexico, the hub of Virgin Galactic’s commercial operations.

Unity made the trip from Mojave, California — the home base of Virgin’s manufacturing subsidiary, The Spaceship Company — beneath the wings of VMS Eve, the plane that will carry Unity aloft during operational missions. The journey therefore kicked off the final stages of Unity’s test campaign.

“This captive-carry flight provided an opportunity for engineers to evaluate VSS Unity for over three hours at high altitude and cold temperatures, a longer period of time than is experienced during missions to space,” Virgin Galactic representatives wrote in a statement yesterday. “These environmental evaluations of system performance are difficult to replicate at ground level, making captive-carry missions a vital component of VSS Unity’s flight-test plan.”

SpaceShipTwo is a six-passenger space plane designed to carry people and scientific payloads on brief trips to suborbital space. The vehicle gets airborne with the help of a carrier plane called WhiteKnightTwo (VMS Eve).

At an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), WhiteKnightTwo drops SpaceShipTwo, and the space plane fires up its onboard rocket motor to make its own way to suborbital space. Passengers onboard SpaceShipTwo will get to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see Earth’s curvature against the blackness of space before coming back down for a runway landing.

A ticket to ride SpaceShipTwo currently sells for $250,000, and more than 600 people have put down a deposit to book a seat, Virgin Galactic representatives have said.

Unity has already made it to the final frontier twice, acing piloted test flights to suborbital space in December 2018 and February 2019. Both of those missions took off from Mojave, as did the space plane’s many other test flights.

But the test campaign has now moved to New Mexico. There will be more captive-carry flights from Spaceport America, as well as unpowered “glide flights” and rocket-powered test missions, Virgin Galactic representatives wrote in yesterday’s statement. This work will continue to prove out Unity’s performance and also allow the vehicle’s pilots to familiarize themselves fully with Spaceport America and its surroundings.

When these test flights are done, Unity will be ready to begin flying paying customers.

“When Virgin Galactic started moving to New Mexico [from Mojave] last year, everyone felt the sheer magnitude of the task ahead, but we were encouraged and excited by the team’s confidence and strong vision for the future,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in yesterday’s statement.

“Today we realized the next step in that dream by bringing our beautiful spaceship to New Mexico,” he added. “We still have significant work ahead, but we are grateful to all our teammates who have made this day a reality.”

Virgin Galactic’s vision of the future involves more than just VSS Unity and VMS Eve. The company’s hangar at Spaceport America can accommodate five SpaceShipTwo vehicles and two WhiteKnightTwo craft simultaneously, allowing for frequent flights from the facility. And Virgin Galactic intends to fill that hangar eventually; two additional SpaceShipTwo vehicles are currently under construction in Mojave, for example, and both are pretty far along.

Virgin Galactic: Unity rocket ship moves to operational base – BBC News

Virgin Galactic: Unity rocket ship moves to operational base

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These are external links and will open in a new window

Sir Richard Branson has moved his rocket plane from its development base in California to what will be its operational centre in New Mexico.

The transfer of the Unity vehicle and its mothership, Eve, to the Spaceport America complex signals the start of final testing.

Sir Richard’s Virgin Galactic company is now close to beginning commercial service.

More than 600 individuals have paid deposits to ride Unity to over 80km.

The trip will enable them to experience a few minutes of weightlessness around the top of the rocket ship’s climb.

  • Virgin’s Unity plane rockets skyward
  • Spaceship ignites engine in flight
  • ‘Inspiring’ book taken on Scots space mission

Image copyright MarsScientific.com & Trumbull Studios Image caption Unity powers to around 90km above the surface of the Earth

Already almost 100 Virgin Galactic staff have moved to the southern New Mexico spaceport to prepare it – and themselves – for operations.

Image copyright Virgin Galactic 2018 Image caption Ultimately, Sir Richard himself will take a trip to the edge of space

Unity will now perform a series of test flights above the desert.

Some of these will see it dropped from altitude to simply glide back to the runway. Others will involve firing its rocket motor to power skyward.

Ultimately, Sir Richard himself will get aboard for a trip to the edge of space.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides described the move to New Mexico as a “huge moment” for the company.

“It’s the culmination of a tonne of work by a lot of people to prepare the way to get the spaceport ready, to get the ships ready,” he said.

“And it really positions us in an exciting way to move through the final phase of our test-flight programme.”

Unity will open the commercial spaceflight service, but two more rocket planes are in production in California and will also move to Spaceport America when they are compete.

Sir Richard’s other space project – a satellite-carrying rocket launched from under the wing of a repurposed Virgin Atlantic jumbo – is also close to entering service.

The satellite launcher concept was once part of the Galactic business but was then hived off into its own concern called Virgin Orbit.

The UK government is hopeful Sir Richard will want to operate his space companies in his home country at some point, in addition to the US.

Newquay Airport in Cornwall has been proposed as a British operational hub.

Image copyright Virgin Galactic 2020 Image caption Two more rocket planes will follow Unity and Eve to New Mexico

Virgin Galactic reports high interest in its future space flights

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Associated Press

Virgin Galactic reports high interest in its future space flights

Associated Press

Nearly 8,000 online reservations; initial seats sold for $250,000 apiece

Sir Richard Branson poses on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange ahead of Virgin Galactic’s IPO in October.

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LOS ANGELES — Virgin Galactic has received nearly 8,000 online reservations of interest since its first successful test flight into space 14 months ago, the company said Tuesday as it nears commercial operation and prepares to reopen ticket sales.

Virgin Galactic SPCE, -1.23% already had more than 600 firm reservations that were taken from customers in 60 countries until the December 2018 flight, when it closed down ticket sales.

The company said that on Wednesday it will begin a process called “One Small Step” that will allow those online registrants who are serious about becoming passenger astronauts to register online for a firm reservation by paying a fully refundable deposit of $1,000.

Confirming a spaceflight reservation will be a process called “One Giant Leap,” echoing the words of Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong when he became the first person to set foot on the moon in 1969.

The company did not say when the new set of seats would be released or the actual cost. The initial seats were sold at $250,000 apiece.

After years of development and testing at Mojave Air & Space Port in Mojave, California, Virgin Galactic has been moving toward starting actual operations at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico — although it has not set a date.

A special carrier aircraft recently ferried its spaceship, VSS Unity, from California to New Mexico and said construction of the next two spacecraft is well underway.

Virgin Galactic is offering suborbital flights to an altitude of at least 50 miles, where passengers will see a vast swath of the Earth far below and experience a few minutes of weightlessness before the spacecraft glides to a landing.

The current 7,957 online registrations are more than double the number the number the company last reported in September 2019.

Stephen Attenborough, the company’s commercial director, said in a statement that the increasing demand for personal spaceflight was encouraging.

“One Small Step allows us to help qualify and build confidence in our direct sales pipeline, as well as to ensure that those who are most keen to make reservations, are able to do so at the earliest opportunity,” he said.

Virgin Galactic was founded by British billionaire Richard Branson after the historic 2004 flights of the experimental SpaceShipOne, which was funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize as the first privately developed, manned rocket to reach space.

Virgin Galactic’s six-passenger spacecraft is a type called SpaceShipTwo. A carrier aircraft carries it to high altitude and releases it before its rocket engine ignites.

The company is now formally named Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. and went public on the New York Stock Exchange in October. The fleet is being manufactured by The Spaceship Company, a wholly owned subsidiary.

Virgin Galactic Reports High Interest in Space Flights

Virgin Galactic Reports High Interest in Space Flights

Virgin Galactic Reports High Interest in Space Flights

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The spaceflight company Virgin Galactic has received nearly 8,000 online reservations of interest since its first successful test flight 14 months ago.

The company reported this week on the number of people reserving seats for future space flights as it nears commercial operation and prepares to reopen ticket sales.

Virgin Galactic already had more than 600 confirmed reservations, from people in 60 countries, before the December 2018 test flight. It then suspended ticket sales.

On Wednesday the company announced that it will begin a process called “One Small Step.” It is for those online registrants who are serious about becoming passenger astronauts. They are now required to pay $1,000 toward the cost of their flight. Virgin Galactic says they will get the money back if they change their minds.

Confirming a spaceflight reservation will be a process called “One Giant Leap.” Those are the words American astronaut Neil Armstrong said when he became the first person to set foot on the moon in 1969.

Virgin Galactic did not say when the new set of seats would be released or the actual cost. The company set the cost of the first set of seats at $250,000 each.

Virgin Galactic spent years developing and testing its space flight technology at Mojave Air & Space Port in Mojave, California. Now it is moving toward starting actual operations at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. A start date has yet to be set, however.

A special carrier aircraft recently transported the company’s spaceship, VSS Unity, from California to New Mexico. The company has already started building two other spacecraft.

Virgin Galactic is offering flights just outside Earth’s atmosphere, as high as 80.5 kilometers up in space. There, passengers will see large parts of the planet’s surface and experience a few minutes of weightlessness before the spacecraft returns to Earth.

The current number of online registrations is more than double the number Virgin Galactic last reported in September 2019.

Stephen Attenborough is the company’s commercial director. He said in a statement that the increasing demand for personal spaceflight was a good sign.

British billionaire Richard Branson created Virgin Galactic after the historic 2004 flights of the experimental SpaceShipOne. Money for that spacecraft came from Paul Allen, a co-creator of the Microsoft Corporation. SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize, worth $10 million, as the first privately developed, manned rocket to reach space.

Virgin Galactic’s six-passenger spacecraft is called SpaceShipTwo. A carrier aircraft carries it high into the atmosphere and releases it before its rocket engine fires.

John Antczak reported this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

Words in This Story

reservation(s) – n. an agreement to have something, such as a room, table, or seat held for your use at a later time

commercialadj. related to or used in the buying and selling of goods and services

ticketn. a piece of paper that permits you to see a show, take part in an event, or travel on a vehicle

billionairen. a rich person who has at least a billion dollars

Virgin Galactic Space Flight, Richard Branson Space Company

Richard Branson’s Plans for Space Tourism Sure Are Aggressive

Move aside, Musk. Within four years, the Virgin honcho wants to send people to space every 32 hours.

  • Virgin Galactic is getting real in its plans for space tourism.
  • A document filed by the company’s minority owners details its aggressive plans for the next several years, beginning with test flights in 2020.
  • By 2023, if Virgin Galactic and others have their way, space tourism will have reached a level of normalcy (at least for those who can afford it.)

The launch into commercial space travel will be an aggressive one, if Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic gets its way. Within a document published by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the company describes a plan with crewed test flights starting in 2020 and sending 1,500 tourists into space every year by 2023.

The document was an SEC filing by Social Capital Hedosophia Holdings (SCHH), 49 percent owners of Virgin Galactic. Without much fanfare, Virgin Galactic has gone public on the New York Stock Exchange as a subsidiary of SCHH, a special purpose acquisition company run by former Facebook employees.

The filing describes a clear plan for Virgin Galactic: tickets going for $250,000 each, promising several minutes of weightlessness and views of the curvature of Earth. Virgin Galactic will take customers 50 miles above Earth’s surface, at which point both NASA and Air Force pilots get their astronaut wings.

The filing describes a “universal fascination with human spaceflight” and notes that among the millionaire set Virgin Galactic is targeting, out-of-home experiences are often a priority beyond luxury goods or amenities.

However, where Virgin Galatic is taking its passengers is not a universally agreed upon definition of space. There’s also the Kármán line, or 100 km (about 62 miles) into space. That’s the Earth-space separation point for the Fédération aéronautique internationale (FAI), which maintains aeronautical and astronomical records.

Kármán line debate aside, SCHH says that almost 700 people have signed up for rides in a SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, which require two pilots and can hold six passengers. The company hopes to start with 16 flights in 2020, bumped up to 270 flights a year by 2023. At that point, Virgin Galactic hopes it will have a full fleet of five SS2 spacecraft, as opposed to the two spacecraft (VSS Enterprise and VSS Unity) it does now. Each Virgin Galactic spacecraft also requires a quadjet cargo airplane for launching.

Along with fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, Branson hopes to launch a new era of space tourism. It appears that the potential business model is coming into focus.

Virgin Galactic Space Plane Preps for Space Tourism Flights, Digital Trends

Space tourism: Watch Virgin Galactic’s space plane arrive at new base

For the very wealthy, tourist trips to space should soon become a new way to blow a large chunk of change.

While outfits such as SpaceX and Blue Origin tend to get the most column inches regarding proposed space tourism services, Virgin Galactic has also been busy working on its own system to give paying customers the ride of a lifetime.

With a view to launching its first space tourism flight as early as June 2020, Virgin Galactic has just relocated its SpaceShipTwo passenger craft, VSS Unity, to its commercial headquarters at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

VMS Eve, the aircraft that will carry Unity on the first part of its journey toward space during the tourism trips, flew the passenger craft from Mojave, California, home to the company’s manufacturing facilities.

Watch SpaceShipTwo Unity and our mothership, VMS Eve, land at the Gateway to Space, Spaceport America, New Mexico and complete another vital step on the path to commercial service. Read about the next steps for Unity’s flight test program here. https://t.co/EYrFhjmrKd pic.twitter.com/HJeMqUxpza

Virgin Galactic said the three-hour flight gave it the chance to evaluate VSS Unity at high altitude and cold temperatures, as well as a chance to carry out more pilot training.

The team has been working on its space tourism project since 2004, though the endeavor suffered a serious blow in 2014 when the VSS Enterprise space plane crashed during a test flight, killing one of the two pilots. After a period of review and reflection, Virgin Galactic returned in 2016 with the new VSS Unity aircraft before making the first of several successful test flights to the edge of space in 2018.

A seat on the space plane for the 90-minute trip will set you back an eye-watering $250,000. The experience will include being carried high in the sky by the carrier plane before Unity’s rocket engines fire up to take you toward the generally agreed boundary of where space begins, around 62 miles up. Besides the breathtaking views, you’ll also experience a brief period of weightlessness before returning to Earth for a runway landing.

In time, Virgin Galactic says it wants to operate a range of vehicles from multiple locations to cater to the demands of the growing space-user community, including “transporting passengers to Earth-orbiting hotels and science laboratories or providing a world-shrinking, transcontinental service.”

Final stages of preparation

The relocation of VSS Unity to Spaceport America means the 100-strong team can now begin work on the final stages of its flight test program, starting with a number of captive carry and glide flights from the new operating base.

After that, the team will move on to rocket-powered test flights from Spaceport America to confirm VSS Unity’s readiness for its first commercial spaceflight operations.

As we mentioned at the top, Virgin Galactic isn’t the only company looking to launch space tourism flights in the near future. Blue Origin, owned by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, is developing a reusable rocket system for the same purpose, with one of its test flights last year giving future passengers an idea of what to expect from its 10-minute space ride. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s SpaceX also has a plan to send a Japanese billionaire and eight artists on a trip to the moon and back, possibly in 2023.

Will Virgin Galactic Space Flights Take Off Soon?

Will Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Space Flights Take Off Soon?

We went to middle-of-nowhere New Mexico to find out

There’s a lot of nothing in New Mexico. As one of the least populated states in America, the arid landscape offers countless miles of rock- and scrub-lined highways stretching between sporadic, lonely rest stops. Away from Santa Fe, there doesn’t seem to be a town big enough to change its own future, let alone the future of the world.

Still, if you head about 25 miles south of Truth or Consequences (yes, real town name), you’ll come across a vast stretch of fenced-in concrete and tarmac laid out around a hub of sprawling, modern buildings. You’ve discovered Spaceport America, the country’s first private launch facility for orbital tourism and the operational headquarters for Virgin Galactic.

There’s a lot of nothing in New Mexico (John Lewinski)

After years of investment, engineering and construction, the Virgin Galactic space tourism service appears set to send its first customers (and owner Richard Branson) into the stars this year. In the meantime, the company is hard at work building an elite, exclusive community among aspiring astronauts able to pay the $250,000 roundtrip ticket. (The one-way trips seem more popular with cremated customers so far.)

More than 600 would-be Buzz Aldrin(s) paid the $50,000 deposit to snag their seats before Virgin put a hold on sales. They’ll float over the remaining $200K before T-minus-zero takes them skyward.

Clare Pelly, Head of the Virgin Galactic Astronaut Office, is in charge of keeping those 600+ planetary pioneers engaged, organized and entertained as the company completes its final round of test flights over the great American southwest. She says it was Branson’s idea to build this astronaut community to test the waters and see how willing people were to get onboard the space train.

“The response was overwhelming,” Pelly tells InsideHook. “There are more than 60 nations represented, led by the U.S., the UK, Australia, Canada and Russia. Many of the customers never thought they’d have the chance to fly into space, and they get that opportunity through us.”

“Then, there are the people who have done everything. They’ve climbed Everest. They’ve been pole to pole, and this is just the ultimate addition to their bucket list.”

After making test flights for the last five years, Virgin Galactic recently completed the most advanced version of its Space Plane. Resembling a mix of a Gulfstream jet and a trimmed-down space shuttle, the craft will carry six tourists per flight above the atmosphere. Those happy few will experience total weightlessness and view the globe from above as the craft turns over to allow a full view through the roof viewing port.

The eventual plan is to fire up a new flight daily as long as demand maintains escape velocity. There’s no official word yet if such a successful, ongoing and regular service will generate enough revenue to bring that 250-large down a tick or two.

For now, Virgin Galactic is prepping for about 100 flights to get its current eager ticket holders off the ground. It’s the job of Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor, to get all of those passengers educated, trained and prepped for short term space travel.

“The process starts several months before the passengers’ flight,” Moses says. “Leading right up to your flight, you would travel to New Mexico for a week. Sunday, we’d do final fittings on your Under Armour space suit. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday would be solid training days, with your flight coming that week.”

Six months before all of that begins in the desert, Pelly’s Astronaut Office steps in to get your suit measurements and other physical details for your bespoke seat, to research your expectations and goals for your flight and to introduce you to the larger space-tourist community.

Training falls to Moses, as a former NASA Assembly Manager and the first woman to reach space on a commercial flight. She’s been directly involved in the design and engineering of the passenger experience from early in the Virgin Galactic story — serving as the Cabin Test Lead.

As the engineers produce each new version of the Space Plane, she works with the evaluating and development program to make sure this expensive journey to the stars offers up maximum comfort and safety. A glimpse inside that cabin reveals seats for two pilots and six tourists. Those six guest spots offer a clear view to the left and right, as well as overhead — the ship’s “sunroof” will get you closer to said sun than the roof of any hatchback will. The entire “space” stretch of the journey lasts less than 15 minutes, with the total flight time stretching just over an hour.

“During takeoff and into the flight, the experience is very much like standard air travel,” Moses claims. “But, when in space, you get to unbuckle and float around and have fun. From the customer perspective, that difference is huge.”

Once in that made-to-order seat, every passenger’s successful adventure is in the hands of David Mackay, Virgin Galactic’s Chief Pilot. A veteran of the Royal Air Force and a longtime captain in the more atmosphere-bound Virgin Atlantic fleet, Mackay served as a test pilot for world famous aircraft like the Harrier jump-jet before receiving the Air Force Cross in 1992.

“We go officially into space — about 50 miles above the Earth, the NASA-accepted definition,” Mackay explains. “The challenge of this flight is that, while the plane is still in the atmosphere, it flies as a regular aircraft would. Once it leaves the atmosphere, you’re on a ballistic flight path. That’s predetermined by the way you leave the atmosphere.”

The Scotsman commands a team of six space pilots — all of whom serve as test crew during the Virgin Galactic development stages. During his successful first complete test flight, Mackay became the first Scot in space.

A propeller-powered mothership carries the Space Plane up to a cruising altitude above Spaceport America before Mackay’s craft detaches and activates its onboard booster rocket. While a controlled burn tears through enough fuel to get the craft out of the atmosphere’s upper levels. Mackay positions the vehicle for the passengers’ experience of zero gravity and the best possible views.

“We can’t change the flight path of the vehicle, but you can change the vehicle’s attitude. We can orientate it to optimize the flight path. We believe the best option is to invert the vehicle at apogee. We also reenter the atmosphere in an inverted position, so passengers get a chance to see the Earth rushing back toward them.”

(John Lewinski)

After the space plane escaped the surly bonds of Earth long enough to give its passengers a taste of the void, it’s up to Mackay to get all souls on board back to the dirt. He describes the ship behaving like a badminton birdie at this point, adjusting its tail into a feather position to stabilize its descent.

At this point, the space plane will have burned out its rocket engine (its only onboard propellent) several minutes ago. Once out of its shuttlecock formation, the aircraft becomes “dead stick,” gliding outside the bounds of terminal velocity thanks to physics and Mackay’s piloting skills. The only thing left after that is touchdown, along an extensive runway back in the New Mexico desert.

Virgin Atlantic just completed construction of its third space plane vehicle, certifying it “weight on wheels,” or able to hold its total structural integrity. Within the coming year, the world will learn if a space tourism effort can maintain its own “weight on wheels” by sending civilian space travelers skyward every single day.

Virgin Galactic Stock Is a Bet on the Future of Space Travel

Virgin Galactic Stock Is a Bet on the Future of Space Travel. How Much Is That Worth?

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceshipTwo.

The stock of space-tourism and technology company Virgin Galactic is on an epic tear, leaving some value investors scratching their heads. Why is a company with, essentially, no sales worth billions? That question misses the point. Virgin Galactic has ambitions to become more than a space-tourism operator. It wants to bring hypersonic flight to the masses.

Start with the epic stock run. Shares have gained about 190% year to date and up more than 360% over the past three months, crushing the comparable returns of the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. What’s more, Virgin Galactic (ticker: SPCE) warrants —issued by the company giving investors the right to buy a share for $11.50—are up more than 520% year to date and 1,370% over the past three months.

Investors must be really excited about space tourism. Galactic plans to take thrill-seekers up to the edge of space and back for about $250,000 per trip. The company said it has received more than 8,000 inquiries about its flights when it reported fourth-quarter numbers–its first quarterly report as a publicly traded company–Tuesday evening. Inquiries grew more than 100% since the end of 2019. A lot of people want to experience weightlessness.

That’s not all Virgin Galactic wants to be known for. “There is demand for higher speed flight,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides tells Barron’s. Whitesides is qualified to talk about high-speed flight. He’s was the chief of staff at NASA and a fellow at the U.K. Royal Aeronautical Society as well as a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. What’s more, he’s a pilot certified parabolic flight coach.

(Investors shouldn’t feel sheepish if they don’t know what a parabolic flight coach does. Those are flights designed to simulate zero-gravity, or weightlessness. Barron’s had to look it up too.)

“We’ve been stuck at Mach 0.85 for a generation,” adds Whitesides. Mach is the engineering term for the speed of sound, about 767 miles per hour. Travelers once had higher speeds available to them via the iconic Concord jet. It cruised at more than 1,300 miles per hour, making it a supersonic flight. Hypersonic speeds are above Mach 5, more than 3,000 miles per hour.

“At those speeds, you need a hybrid engine,” explains Whitesides. In this case, he’s talking about combining turbine jet engines, which have, essentially, spinning parts, with ramjet engines, that use the forward motion of the plane to compress the air. It’s technically complex and one reason hypersonic travel is expensive.

But there are pockets of hypersonic development. Militaries around the globe are investing in hypersonic technology. That could be a source of business for Galactic, although there are no firm plans yet. And Galactic’s hypersonic technology could take a Tesla-like (TSLA) approach to the market, targeting high-net-worth individuals interested in higher speed flight. There is, after all, an existing market for multi-million dollar private jets.

Tesla initially sold $100,000-plus vehicles to rich automobile owners. The company has been cutting the costs of its models over time, and now offers some base models for less than $40,000.

None of the hypersonic sales in the future are assured. Hypersonic private jets aren’t on the near-term horizon, and Whitesides didn’t discuss how much a hypersonic jet program would cost to develop. But even commercial aerospace giant Boeing (BA) is interested in the technology. It has invested $20 million in Virgin Galactic. Galactic, while it remains an early-stage, pre-revenue company, has $480 million of cash on its balance sheet.

“Our work with Virgin Galactic, and others, will help unlock the future of space travel and high-speed mobility,” said Brian Schettler, senior managing director of Boeing HorizonX Ventures, in an earlier statement that Boeing referred Barron’s to.