Space tourism is trying to take off.
Richard Branson’s planned flight to the edge of space on Sunday brings the nascent industry closer to reality, though it could be years before most travelers can afford it.
Branson and five others to travel in a Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc.
spacecraft that will take you more than 50 miles above Earth. The trip marks Virgin Galactic’s first flight with what the company describes as a full crew, which will include the billionaire businessman, three company executives and two pilots who will fly the spacecraft.
The company has said the high-profile flight is the latest test of its technology and the first since the Federal Aviation Administration granted it permission last month to carry paying passengers into space. Virgin Galactic has said it hopes to start operating such trips next year. For now, Sunday’s flight serves as another potential validation point for a space tourism industry that will need to attract wealthy passengers as it progresses.
Manned spaceflight, long the competition of government agencies with scientific goals and political objectives, is attracting new interest from investors and companies who see new opportunities to create a space tourism industry that has long been elusive to. commercial companies. Billionaires like Mr. Branson, Amazon.com INC.
founder Jeff Bezos, Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk, and others are betting that the demand is there to create an entirely new business and experience.
“This whole thing is to give people a sense of the wonder and splendor of space,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said in a recent interview.
Virgin Galactic has not said what it plans to charge for tickets when it resumes sales. The company, which had stopped marketing in 2014, received up to $ 250,000 in deposits for each future flight, according to its latest annual report. Some analysts believe the company can set a ticket price of up to $ 400,000 each. In May, executives said the company would reopen sales the moment Branson caught a flight.
“I have no doubt that there is interest in it, I have no doubt that there are customers who want to do it,” said Ron Epstein, an analyst for the aerospace industry at Bank of America. “It is difficult to say how many and for how long. It’s just not obvious how big it is. “
Virgin Galactic has characterized interest in its offering as strong and reported that it had approximately 600 reservations for future space travel backed by more than $ 80 million in deposits. In discussing the lawsuit, the company last year listed roughly two million people with a net worth of more than $ 10 million in 2019.
“We think there is going to be a great demand. I think you see the excitement around the concept of manned spaceflight and you see it from various players in the market, ”Colglazier said in an investor call in May.
Executives have said Virgin Galactic could generate $ 1 billion in annual revenue from each spaceport it operates. The company reported a loss of $ 273 million for 2020.
Mr. Branson’s flight is scheduled to take off from the company’s first facility of its kind, located near Las Cruces, New Mexico. Once in space, those on board can float weightlessly for a few minutes and look out of a dozen circular cockpit windows for views of Earth and space few have seen. There are also five windows for the pilots.
Virgin Galactic is not alone in trying to build a spaceflight business. Bezos’ Blue Origin is planning a trip to space on July 20 that will include him, his brother, and two other people. The company is also considering opportunities with government and national security clients and was chosen last year with partners to develop a lander intended to get astronauts to the moon as early as 2024.
The Musk Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, has brought astronauts to the International Space Station and back and is working on a lander for NASA. However, SpaceX is also planning the first fully civilian mission to space later this year, commanded by Jared Isaacman, CEO of Shift4 Payments. INC.
By 2030, space tourism may generate nearly $ 4 billion in revenue for that year, according to an estimate last year by UBS analyst Myles Walton. That figure includes sales tied to the type of suborbital spaceflight, which reaches the limits of where officials say space begins, that Virgin Galactic and its competitor Blue Origin have been working on, as well as other types of travel, such as flights around. of a planet and trips to the moon.
Traveling into space carries risks. The ships that Virgin Galactic and other space companies are using to transport humans into space have been tested a fraction of the number of times as commercial aircraft. In 2014, a Virgin Galactic pilot died testing a company space plane. Safety regulators later said the pilot prematurely unlocked a section of the tail after the craft fired its rocket engine and while approaching the sound barrier, causing the craft to break apart. Another pilot survived.
Joanne Gabrynowicz, a professor emeritus at the University of Mississippi focused on space law, generally said about commercial spacecraft: “We are still talking about transport vehicles with a very limited trajectory, and as long as that remains the case, it is important. understand the degree of risk involved in each launch “.
Virgin Galactic’s flight on Sunday will be the 22nd for its VSS Unity spacecraft. Safety is “the foundation of everything we do at Virgin Galactic,” said Colglazier, CEO of the company.
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After a test flight in May in which VSS Unity reached an altitude of 55.5 miles, the Federal Aviation Administration approved a full commercial space launch license for Virgin Galactic. Colglazier said the company met all of its technical goals during the May flight, giving it insight into what travel would feel like for customers. Mr. Branson’s role on Sunday’s flight is to help the company think about these issues.
Virgin Galactic’s business model is almost entirely focused on space tourism, making Sunday’s flight critical for the company.
“For Virgin Galactic, they’re putting a lot of eggs in this basket,” said Andrew Chanin, CEO of New York-based ProcureAM LLC, which manages a space industry exchange-traded fund. “Because so much of your business is focused on space tourism, this is absolutely critical to the success or failure of your business.”
—Doug Cameron contributed to this article.
Write to Micah Maidenberg in [email protected] and Benjamin Katz in [email protected]
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