Looking to the future, Virgin Galactic buys 2 more motherships


Enlarge / Virgin Spaceship Unity and Virgin Mothership Eve take to the skies on their first captive transport flight on September 8, 2016.

Galactic Virgo

Almost a full year has passed since Virgin Galactic last flew its SpaceShipTwo vehicle into space, but the company says it is moving towards a faster cadence of flights.

On Wednesday, Virgin Galactic announced an agreement with Boeing-owned Aurora Flight Sciences to design and manufacture two next-generation motherships. A mothership carries the Virgin Galactic spacecraft to an altitude of about 15 km before releasing it, after which the spacecraft ignites its rocket engine and flies over 90 km.

In a press release, Virgin Galactic said it expects to take delivery of the first of two new motherships in 2025. The company currently has only one carrier aircraft, VMS Standbywhich made its first flight in 2008. Virgin did not say how long this vehicle will be able to perform missions, or how many refurbishments it will need as it begins to fly more frequently.

“Our next-generation motherships are an integral part of scaling our operations,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said in the statement. “They will be faster to produce, easier to maintain, and allow us to fly many more missions each year. Backed by the scale and strength of Boeing, Aurora is the perfect manufacturing partner for us as we build our fleet to support 400 flights a year at Spaceport America.”

This target of 400 flights per year is considered the rate that Virgin Galactic must achieve to achieve profitability. This seems exaggerated, given that the company VSS unit hasn’t flown since July 2021 and won’t return to service until at least the fourth quarter of this year.

Virgin Galactic reported a net loss of $93 million in the first quarter of this year, but said demand for its services was strong and it had “cash equivalents, restricted cash and securities negotiable of $1.22 billion”. The company is due to release its second-quarter financial results next month.

Partly due to the long period without spaceflight since last July, shares of the publicly traded company fell precipitously. Around the time Virgin Galactic launched its founder, Sir Richard Branson, into space last July, the stock was trading at over $50 a share. The price was $6.45 per share at the close of business on Wednesday.

The problem for Virgin Galactic is not demand. Hundreds of customers have put down a deposit to fly on the company’s spaceplanes, and Virgin hopes to have 1,000 bookings by the end of this year. Rather, the question is whether Virgin Galactic can meet this demand with a vehicle that, to date, has had a very low theft rate compared to the company’s projections.

The company is building a new generation of spacecraft called “Delta” class vehicles to meet this demand. These spacecraft are designed for faster reuse. In Wednesday’s press release, Virgin Galactic announced plans to have the first Delta-class spacecraft begin revenue-paying payload flights in 2025, when the first new mothership arrives.

That’s three or more years from now. Given Virgin Galactic’s rate of cash burn and the inherent delays of complex aerospace development projects, the company’s financial challenges in the coming years could go beyond technical hurdles.

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