Looking to the Future, Virgin Galactic Buys 2 More Motherships

in great shape , Virgin spaceship Unity and Virgin Mothership Eve take to the skies in their first captive carry flight on Sept. 8, 2016.

Virgin Galactic

Nearly a full year has passed since Virgin Galactic last flew its SpaceShipTwo vehicle into space, but the company says it is moving towards a more rapid sync of flights.

On Wednesday, Virgin Galactic announced an agreement with Boeing-owned Aurora Flight Sciences to design and build two next-generation motherships. A mothership lifts the Virgin Galactic spaceship to an altitude of about 15 km before release, after which the spaceship fires its rocket engine and flies above 90 km.

In a news release, Virgin Galactic said it expects to take delivery of the first of two new mothers in 2025. The company currently has a single carrier aircraft, VMS EveWhich made its first flight in 2008. Virgin hasn’t said how long this vehicle will be able to fly missions, nor how many upgrades it will need as it starts flying more frequently.

“Our next-generation motherships are integral to growing our operations,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said in the release. “They will be faster to produce, easier to maintain, and allow us to fly significantly more missions each year. Backed by the scale and strength of Boeing, Aurora is the ideal manufacturing partner for us as we are equipped to support 400 flights. every year at Spaceport America.”

Virgin Galactic is believed to need cadence to reach its target profit of 400 flights per year. This seems like a stretch, given that the company’s VSS Integration Has not flown since July 2021 and will not return to service until at least the fourth quarter of this year.

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

The publicly traded company’s stock has dropped sharply, partly because of the long period without spaceflight since last July. At the time Virgin Galactic launched its founder Sir Richard Branson into space last July, the stock was trading above $50 a share. The price was $6.45 per share at the close of trading on Wednesday.

Virgin Galactic’s issue is not demand. Hundreds of customers have made deposits to fly on the company’s space planes, and Virgin expects 1,000 reservations by the end of this year. Rather, the issue is whether Virgin Galactic can meet that demand with a vehicle that has far lower flight rates than the company’s estimates to date.

The company is building a new generation of spacecraft called “Delta” class vehicles to meet that demand. These spacecraft are being designed with more rapid reuse in mind. In a Wednesday news release, Virgin Galactic said it plans to begin flying revenue payload flights of the first Delta-class spacecraft in 2025, when the first new mothership arrives.

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

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