Nearly a full year has passed since Virgin Galactic last flew its SpaceShipTwo vehicle into space, but the company says it is progressing toward a more rapid cadence of flights.
On Wednesday, Virgin Galactic announced a deal with Boeing-owned Aurora Flight Sciences to design and manufacture two next-generation motherships. A mothership carries the Virgin Galactic spaceship to an altitude of about 15 km before releasing it, 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 the two new motherships in 2025. The company presently has a single carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, that made its first flight in 2008. Virgin has not said how long this vehicle will be able to fly missions, nor how much refurbishment it will need as it begins flying more frequently.
“Our next-generation motherships are integral to scaling our operations,” said Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier in the release. “They will be faster to produce, easier to maintain, and will allow us to fly substantially more missions each year. Supported by the scale and strength of Boeing, Aurora is the ideal manufacturing partner for us as we build our fleet to support 400 flights per year at Spaceport America.”
That target of 400 flights per year is believed to be the cadence Virgin Galactic needs to hit to reach profitability. That seems like a stretch, given that the company’s VSS Unity 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 this year but said demand for its services was strong and that it had “cash equivalents, restricted cash, and marketable securities of $1.22 billion” on hand. The company is due to report its second-quarter financial results next month.
Partly due to the long period without a spaceflight since last July, the publicly traded company’s stock has dropped precipitously. Around the time Virgin Galactic flew its founder, Sir Richard Branson, into space last July, the stock was trading above $50 a share. The price was $6.45 a share at the close of business on Wednesday.
The issue for Virgin Galactic is not demand. Hundreds of customers have put down a deposit to fly on the company’s space planes, and Virgin hopes to have 1,000 reservations by the end of this year. Rather, the issue is whether Virgin Galactic can meet that demand with a vehicle that, to date, has had a very low flight rate compared to the company’s projections.
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 the news release on Wednesday, Virgin Galactic said it plans to have the first Delta-class spaceship begin flying revenue payload flights in 2025, when the first new mothership arrives.
That is three years, or more, from now. Given the rate of Virgin Galactic’s cash burn and delays inherent in complex aerospace development projects, the company’s financial challenges in the years ahead may exceed the technical hurdles.