Virgin Galactic takeoff postponed to spring 2023

The VSS Unity returns to the ground after the rocket’s second powered flight in May 2018. The passenger rocket is almost ready to fly, but upgrades will delay liftoff until spring 2023. (SOURCE: Virgin Galactic)

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Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity passenger rocket is almost ready to fly, but slow upgrades to the Eve carrier ship – which flies Unity halfway to space – mean another three-month delay to the commercial launch, the company announced Thursday.

This is the second time this year that Virgin Galactic has postponed its planned tourist rides to suborbit from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.

In February, the company said the Eve mothership and Unity would both return to the spaceport this summer following structural upgrades in Caifornia, allowing test flights to resume by mid-year. , then space flights for fare-paying passengers in the fall.

But in May, Virgin Galactic said supply chain issues and labor shortages had slowed upgrades, postponing the resumption of test flights until this fall and the commercial launch until winter in early 2023.

Now, the company says changes to the mothership are taking longer than expected, causing another delay. That means the ships won’t return to New Mexico until early next year, with flight testing resuming in the winter of 2023, followed by the first passenger trips in the spring of 2023, the company’s CEO said. Michael Colglazier, during a second quarter earnings call with investors. Thursday afternoon.

“Despite our best efforts, progress on our improvement program at Mojave — particularly the complex work of preparing Eve for commercial service — has taken longer than expected,” Colglazier said.

Work on Unity is nearing completion, potentially allowing the passenger rocket to return to service faster than the mothership. But Eve’s upgrades must be completed first, as the carrier ship is designed to fly Unity on its belly at around 50,000 feet, where the six-passenger rocket then detaches and ignites its engines to fire in sub-orbit. This allows space tourists to float for a few minutes in microgravity and enjoy spectacular views of the Earth below.

Assuming there are no more delays in the future, Unity should provide monthly tourist flights once commercial service begins, Colglazier said.

But while that may be good news for some of the more than 800 Virgin Galatic customers who have already paid for reservations on upcoming spaceflights, it means only six passengers a month will be able to fly. And the flight rate won’t increase until the company’s second spacecraft, the VSS Imagine, enters service, potentially paving the way for three rocket flights per month.

Under the new launch schedule, however, Imagine won’t even begin test flights until mid-2023, with passenger service now delayed until the fall of next year at the earliest, and possibly until early 2024. This is because the company has transferred personnel and resources. away from working on Imagine to accelerate needed improvements on Eve, slowing progress on second spacecraft, Colglazier tells investors

“Imagine is a new vehicle and requires a sequence of planned test flights before carrying private astronauts,” Colglazier said. “The inherent variability of flight testing makes it prudent to allow for appropriate scheduling flexibility, which could potentially extend Imagine’s private astronaut service window into early 2024.”

Laying the groundwork for spaceflight

Unity has previously flown into suborbit four times with Virgin Galactic pilots and crew, including company founder Sir Richard Branson’s historic flight in July 2021.

But after Branson’s flight, the company announced a pause to prepare Eve and Unity for long-term passenger service, making structural improvements to both ships to increase their durability and enable rapid turnaround between flights once commercial operations begin. .

This is especially important for Eve, a 14-year-old crafter who has flown several times.

Improvements include work on the center section of Eve’s wing to improve the pylon that attaches the rocket to the carrier aircraft. It’s a time-consuming improvement that requires new designs by highly skilled engineers, Colglazier said.

Yet despite slow progress in upgrading the company’s existing ships, Virgin Galactic is simultaneously working to build a solid manufacturing base for its next-generation “Delta-class” passenger rockets, and for new motherships to service these rockets.

In July, the company announced a new partnership with Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences to build two more motherships. Aurora will help design and manufacture them, while Virgin Galactic will perform final assembly at its California facility.

The first will be ready for commissioning by 2025, just as Virgin Galactic’s new Delta ships start rolling out of production.

The company contracts other aerospace companies to build subassemblies for Delta rockets for final assembly by Virgin Galactic at a new facility it is building in Arizona. The plant, which will be located adjacent to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, will be equipped to produce up to six Delta ships per year, Colglazier said.

“Construction has already begun and we expect the facility to be fully operational by the end of 2023, supporting our goal to deploy the first Delta ships in 2025,” he said.

Also, last Monday, the company said it acquired land in Sierra County to build a new astronaut campus and training facility for its spaceflight customers and their families.

“It’s located close to Spaceport America,” Colglazier said.

burn money

Ultimately, Virgin Galactic plans to operate up to 400 flights per year from Spaceport America. But with commercial launch nearly a year away, and only a slow ramp-up of flights until Delta ships enter service in 2025, the company is burning through a lot of cash. And it won’t start generating significant revenue until spaceflight begins.

The company reported a net loss of $111 million in the second quarter, compared with a loss of $93 million in the first quarter.

And as Virgin Galactic invests in new manufacturing facilities and ship production, it expects losses of between $110 million and $120 million over the next few quarters.

Still, the company has plenty of cash to cover the escalating expenses, said chief financial officer Doug Ahrens.

“Our balance sheet remains strong, with over $1.1 billion in cash, cash equivalents and marketable securities,” Ahrens told investors.

The company also announced plans Thursday to sell up to an additional $350 million in stock.

However, its share price remains clearly depressed, given the persistent delays in the commercial launch. The price fell from $8.19 per share on Thursday to $7.02 on Friday afternoon. That’s down from a high of $62.80 per share in February 2021.