Virgin Galactic says it’s letting customers pay $1,000 refundable deposits toward suborbital trips on its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, resuming spaceflight sales after a hiatus of more than a year.
In a news release, Virgin Galactic reported that 7,957 people have signed up on its website to register interest in such trips. Starting Wednesday, all those people will be able to put their money where their interest is.
The company hasn’t yet set the price or the timetable for newly reserved trips under its “One Small Step” program. But based on past statements, the eventual price tag will be more than the $250,000 that Virgin Galactic was charging before it suspended ticket sales in December 2018.
That’s when Virgin Galactic’s only operating SpaceShipTwo craft, dubbed VSS Unity, made its first piloted flight past the 50-mile space milestone at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port. Ticket sales were held up to give the company a chance to test the market and prepare for commercial operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico. At the time that sales were suspended, more than 600 customers from 60 countries held reservations for the first wave of passenger flights. Those customers could start flying later this year.
Since December, VSS Unity has gone through a second test flight in Mojave — and Virgin Galactic, which was founded by British billionaire Richard Branson 15 years ago, has gone through the transition to a publicly traded company. Just last month, Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo craft achieved its “Weight on Wheels” manufacturing milestone. And this month, VSS Unity and its WhiteKnightTwo mothership, VMS Eve, were flown to Spaceport America to take up residence.
Today, Virgin Galactic reported a net fourth-quarter loss of $73 million, with revenue amounting to $529,000. Virgin Galactic’s chief financial officer, Jonathan Campagna, said the company’s revenue came primarily from flying research payloads and providing engineering services.
The loss was larger than expected — but it wasn’t that much of a surprise, considering that Virgin Galactic isn’t flying passengers yet. At the close of the trading day, the company’s share price dipped to $34.04, representing a decline of less than a percentage point on one of the worst days of the year for the broader market.
The price fell further in after-hours trading, but was still almost triple what it was on Virgin Galactic’s first day of public trading.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides played down the loss and played up the eventual upside in today’s earnings report.
“The progress we made in 2019, combined with the high level of interest from potential customers, underpin the steps we are taking toward reopening ticket sales,” he said. “We are continuing to build on our strong momentum as we enter the most exciting chapter of our story to date and prepare for commercial launch.”
Branson has said he intends to take a seat on the first commercial trip this year, but it’s not clear exactly how seats on the six-passenger VSS Unity will be doled out after that first VIP trip. Some customers have been holding reservations for 15 years or so, while others are high-profile influencers — reportedly including actor Ashton Kutcher and singer Justin Bieber.
Virgin Galactic made clear that those currently holding firm seat reservations would get first crack at flying. When new seats are released, those who have put down the One Small Step deposit of $1,000 will be offered the chance to “make the One Giant Leap to a confirmed spaceflight reservation,” the company said. That presumably will involve one giant withdrawal from the deposit-holder’s bank account.
Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic’s commercial director, said he’s been “greatly encouraged” by the demand for personal spaceflight.
“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 in today’s news release.
Looking further ahead, Whitesides told industry analysts during a teleconference that suborbital research missions and international spaceflight operations, plus the creation of the U.S. Space Force, could add to the market opportunities for Virgin Galactic’s launch system.
He said Boeing’s $20 million investment in Virgin Galactic, announced last year, is part of a partnership focused on developing new vehicles serving the high-speed mobility market. One potential project involves developing a high-speed aerial vehicle that could serve as a test bed for defense applications, he said. That suggests that Virgin Galactic could join Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Stratolaunch and other aerospace companies in the market for hypersonic flight systems.