Can Virgin Galactic Reach CEO’s Future 400 Spaceflights Per Year Goal?

Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier shared updates about the company’s future business model in their Nov. 5 earnings call, including new updates on the SpaceShipTwo, pictured here with the VMS Eve in the hangar of The Gateway to Space at Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic plans to perform the first human space flight from its New Mexico Spaceport next week, the latest milestone in the space travel operator’s long-term goal of achieving 400 space flights a year from such facilities, the company’s new chief executive officer Michael Colglazier told analysts during their Nov. 5 third-quarter earnings call.

“I am pleased to announce that we have entered our final flight preparation phase and we expect to launch from Spaceport America between November 19th and November 23rd,” Colglazier said during the call.

Colglazier took over as CEO in July, amid the first of two consecutive quarters of losses including a $77 million net loss in the third quarter while equipping their SpaceShipTwo spacecraft with an upgraded flight control system, horizontal stabilizers and unveiling the vehicle’s cabin interior for the first time. Colglazier and colleagues outlined the company’s long-term plans toward achieving 400 commercial spaceflights a year from spaceports like the one their upcoming flight will occur at, Spaceport America, located in New Mexico near White Sands Missile Range.

“At a recent objective, we are embarking on a multi-year effort that will lead to flying not once a month or even once a week, the targets flying 400 flights per year per Spaceport,” Colglazier said. “The approach we are taking suggests we could generate meaningful revenues of $1 billion a year per Spaceport.”

Virgin Galactic first announced plans to develop a vehicle in September 2004, but years of setbacks and an October 2014 accident delayed their plans. Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their research, development, and production activities, the company has been able to keep its goal of spaceflight from New Mexico on track for this fall.

SpaceShipTwo’s space travel capabilities and Virgin Galactic’s long-term viability relies on Colglazier’s ability to establish an economic spaceport and space flight system business model that would allow them to perform 400 flights a year using hundreds of vehicles like SpaceShipTwo and their proprietary spaceflight system which includes the SpaceShipTwo, its hybrid rocket motor and the mothership or launch platform for SpaceShipTwo, the VMS Eve that is required to airlift the vehicle into Virgin Galactic’s suborbital test flights.

Virgin Galactic showed images of the spaceship cabin for its VSS Unity spacecraft during a virtual event in July. Pictured here is the cabin interior with a payload configuration. (Virgin Galactic)

Their third test spacecraft is projected to roll out by the end of next quarter fully outfitted and used for passenger spaceflights. Virgin Galactic co-founder Richard Branson will participate in the first such flight.

In June, Virgin completed a glide flight and installed the cabin camera system and hardware necessary to provide a live video downlink of their suborbital flights. The following month, they unveiled the design of the VSS Unity cabin during a virtual event, sharing images of what its commercial passenger space flight experience will look like.

Inside the cabin are six seats surrounded by a honeycomb structure with foam and 12 windows and cameras installed throughout to capture video and stills from flights. Their November flight will strap mannequins to the seats to help test the new cabin hardware, according to Mike Moses, president of space missions and safety for Virgin Galactic.

“This upcoming November flight will also include test points to continue evaluation of our upgraded horizontal stabilizers and flight control system. The horizontal stabilizers, also known as H-Stabs, are the flight control surfaces on the outboard of the feather booms,” Moses said.

A few days prior to the earnings call, Moses published a Nov. 2 blog post to Virgin Galactic’s website, noting that the upgrades improve the flight control system’s ability to respond to pilot flight control surfaces inputs and commands.

“Upon successful completion of this flight, and data review, we will proceed to the next phase of testing, where we will fly four mission specialists in the cabin to test and refine the equipment, procedures, training, and overall experience,” Moses writes.

After Branson’s flight next year, Virgin will reopen sales for space travel. The company also has 600 members of a Future Astronauts program, who–once Virgin is ready for commercial space travel–will train and prepare for three days at Spaceport America in custom-fitted flight suits prior to participating in spaceflights. During the training, each passenger is prepared from a mental and physical standpoint for space travel.

Spaceport America is located in a remote part of New Mexico featuring 6,000 miles of restricted airspace, providing the runway where SpaceShipTwo performs a conventional takeoff paired with the VSS Unity to 50,000 feet before it switches to a near-vertical climb. At that point, the pilots will ignite the rocket motor to unleash acceleration forces of around 3.5G that will “propel the spaceship to speeds approaching three and a half times the speed of sound towards the black sky of space,” according to the company’s description of future space travel experience.

Spaceport America’s “Gateway to Space,” , pictured here is a daytime view of the spaceport’s eastern approach. (Spaceport America)

Revenue will be a key factor in achieving Virgin Galactic’s ambitious commercial space travel future goals. The company has in the past said that tickets will cost more than $250,000. According to Colglazier, the first sales opportunities are offered to the 900 individuals that registered for their space fair program that will be retired at the end of this year.

However, getting to the point where actual commercial passengers can participate in the spaceflight experience will require Colglazier’s team to not only overcome the technological and physiological obstacles to space travel but also establishing a business model that supports their future concept of operations.

“I believe Virgin Galactic is at the vanguard of the experience economy. As we will be providing our customers with a transformative journey, a journey that starts when they join our future astronaut community,” Colglazier said. “Now this is a creative and a business model, which I know how to scale and monetize…We will be materially enhancing the experience for both future astronauts and also for their friends and family who will join us in the days leading up to the flights in New Mexico. These efforts are targeted to support a revenue model that expands beyond the astronaut ticket sales.”

Outside of the future business model, another aspect of the future concept of operations for Virgin Galactic to be evaluated in the upcoming flight is their use of radiofrequency and spectrum. In September, Virgin filed its purpose of experiment with the federal communications commission (FCC), giving more details on the communications links, frequency bands, and equipment used by SpaceShipTwo to communicate with air traffic controllers, ground-based support engineers, and experts as well as to provide a live video stream of the flight planned for next week.

The filing notes that the Spaceport America in New Mexico is equipped with three VHF antennas while two support VHF antennas are positioned at Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. All five antennas help to provide radio frequency checkouts of the command path of the space flight system.

SpaceShipTwo paired with the VSS Unity during a glide flight above Spaceport America earlier this year. (Virgin Galactic)

“As part of this authorization, Virgin Galactic seeks to conduct ground tests of the S-band frequencies on the tri-band antenna described in this experimental license application. The tri-band antenna will communicate with the receive-only antenna at Spaceport America in New Mexico,” the company says in the filing.

Virgin Galactic’s November flight will also have important implications toward fulfilling their commercial space license requirement per the Federal Aviation Administration. Data from a rocket-powered flight is required to complete the final two verification and validation elements required by the agency under their current commercial license.

As more commercial space travel ambitions have been launched in recent years, the FAA is taking steps to streamline the way it regulates this segment of the aerospace industry. During a presentation in July, Wayne Monteith, FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, used a tech talk hosted by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics to explain how he sees the agency’s regulation of commercial space operations evolving into the future.

Colglazier did not provide any specified timeline as to when this concept could become reality for the traveling public.

“When I think about 400 flights per year we obviously are going to need several motherships to accomplish that in a spaceport,” Colglazier said. “Many spaceships and obviously lots and lots of rocket motors, in our current footing we’ve been focused on flight test and in order to now pivot to be able to supply the demand that we expect here, we are going to have to ramp up manufacturing in that regard. But I think it will be on the order of a few motherships, many spaceships and like I said, a rocket motor for every flight as we go.”

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