It has been 12 months since Sir Richard Branson briefly departed from this world, only to return to Earth, landing on a hot, dusty runway in rural New Mexico.
The flight marked a triumphant moment for Branson, who, just a week before the age of 71, fulfilled a childhood dream of going to space. In doing so, Branson punched fellow space-obsessed billionaire Jeff Bezos. The enthusiasm about his flight — and the promise it made for Virgin Galactic — helped push his company’s stock above $50 per share.
As Richard Branson went into space, he and his company seemed on top of the world.
But it’s been a rough ride in the years since then. Most importantly, Virgin Galactic VSS Integration The spacecraft has yet to fly again, and it may not do so until this winter. Meanwhile, Bezos’s space tourism company, Blue Origin, has begun flying regular paying customers into more space than Virgin Galactic on fully reusable spacecraft. Partly as a result, Virgin Galactic’s share price has crashed, which is now trading at around $7 per share.
So a year after their historic flight, it’s worth asking the question: Is Virgin Galactic now a player in the space tourism race? And if not, what does this mean for space tourism in the coming years?
Some of the brightness of Branson’s July 11, 2021 flight has gone awry. Several weeks after spaceflight, it was revealed that VSS Integration It flew out of its designated airspace for 1 minute 41 seconds after being dropped by its carrier aircraft. This led the Federal Aviation Administration to ground the spacecraft before concluding in late September that the company needed better procedures and to communicate more closely with the FAA during flight operations.
Ultimately, this grounding had little effect because VSS Integration Wasn’t ready to fly. Originally, Virgin Galactic planned to fly its next mission, to Italian Air Force officials, into space, late last summer or early fall. But in September, the company said the flight would not take place before mid-October due to a supplier problem.
“During preparation for the Unity 23 test flight, a third-party supplier recently flagged a potential manufacturing defect in a component of the flight control actuation system they supply to Virgin Galactic,” the company said in a statement. ” “At this point, it is not yet known whether defects exist in the company’s vehicles and what, if any, repair work may be required.”
By mid-October, when this flight was due, Virgin Galactic announced another reason for the delay. Indeed, the company said, it now plans to launch an “enhancement program” for both. VSS Integration spacecraft and its carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, In its public statements, Virgin Galactic was fairly vague about the work required, but its comments about material and flight margins were somewhat alarming.
This work has proceeded for more or less a year without any further important updates. The next flight, carrying Italian Air Force officials, is now scheduled for no earlier than the fourth quarter of 2022 with commercial service – that is, starting to fly hundreds of people who have bought tickets – delayed until at least the first quarter of 2023.
“They’ve always exceeded their flight times and didn’t deliver, so I never expected their promised flight cadence,” said space industry analyst Laura Forzik. But the long delay between Branson’s flight and a successor mission raises red flags, she said.
“Going a whole year without setting a date for your next flight is not a good sign,” she said. “This leads me to conclude that there were indeed serious structural or operational issues with Virgin Galactic’s recent flights, despite their denials.”