Hitching a ride to space might be your dream coming true in the near future since we’re going to shed some light on the question: are Virgin Galactic selling suborbital holidays? With the space travel scene being dominated by big players like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, it seems that Richard Branson might be in the lead when it comes to making commercial space travel a reality.
The idea of suborbital travel with Virgin Galactic was floated by Richard Branson in 2004, but it wasn’t until 2018 that Virgin Galactic had its first successful launch into outer space. The SpaceShipTwo reached an altitude of 82.7 kilometers (followed by a second one in February 2019).
While the test projections took place in California, commercial launches are intended to start in New Mexico. Read on as we look at the intended start of these commercial launches, the procedure to book one of those coveted seats, and more.
Virgin Galactic’s Journey to Suborbital Travel
In 2004, Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic with the dream of flying passengers into outer space by 2007-2008. By the next year, plans to build a spaceport in New Mexico were already underway.
In 2006, with plans of flying European flights through the Aurora Borealis, launch dates were pushed forward to 2011-2012. 2007 saw the loss of 3 people during a rocket system test that led to an explosion. Despite the drawbacks, by 2008, Virgin Galactic revealed its first rocket-plane with the hopes of the first launch happening in 2010.
The spaceport finally opened in late 2011, with flights expected a year after. The first test took place in late 2014 and ended in a crash landing and a dead pilot. It was not until December 2018 that the first successful flight entered space and put Virgin Galactic in a position where it was ready to open its gates for commercial flights.
The Entry Process
There are over 600 people who have already signed up for a seat on board the company’s aircraft that can seat 6 people and some cargo at a time. These people come from multiple different countries and have collectively put in £60 million for the journey. The company announced the qualification process for this quite recently in February 2020. It intends to launch a program known as One Small Step, where registering will confirm a seat or bump you to the top of the waiting list for one.
This stage requires making a deposit of USD 1000 (don’t worry, it’s refundable). Although the price of actually flying on this spacecraft is not clear as yet, the most recent guestimate of the ticket is that it is priced at USD 250,000.
How Does the Suborbital Flight Take Place?
The rocket, SpaceShipTwo (named the VSS Unity), is onboard the WhiteKnightTwo airplane. Once the plane reaches a height of 15,000 meters (around 50,000 feet), the rocket’s motor will fire up, launching it into suborbital space.
The space experience lasts a few minutes, during which passengers get the once in a lifetime opportunity to see the shape of the Earth from a distance and the darkness of space before landing. Passengers also get to experience the weightlessness they’ve seen in all their favorite space movies. The entire flight from start to finish is expected to last for around an hour and a half.
Celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber have already booked their seats for their suborbital holiday.
VSS Unity is in its final testing phase, and Virgin Galactic currently has two more of these SpaceShipTwos under construction. The company’s hangar at the home base has the capacity for five of these as well as two WhiteKightTwo planes.
Where is Virgin Galactic Getting the Funding for this Project?
Virgin Galactic announced a complete loss in the year 2019 of USD 211 million, with a profit of only USD 3.8 million. Despite this, it has seen an increase in the number of people ready to fly to space.
The project has seen many bumps along the way, even in terms of funding. Saudi Arabia was potentially poised to invest a billion dollars in the project, but the deal came to a halt during the controversy surrounding the murder of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in late 2018.
Richard Branson has hopes to expand this operation for more investors and astronauts. The company will be selling 49% of its share to merge with Social Capital Hedosophia Holdings, which is a shell company listed in New York. The founder, Palihapitiya, will be the chairperson of Virgin Galactic and has promised to invest $100 million more once this deal is finalized. The company is estimated to be valued at a whopping $1.5 billion.
Despite the risk involved in commercializing space travel, with thousands of people lining up for a seat, the reward is expected to be high.
Is Virgin Galactic Really Ahead in the Space Race?
Although Virgin Galactic is the first to have come close to turning commercial suborbital travel into a reality, that might just be because its plans are not big enough. Richard Branson’s competitors seem to be aiming even deeper into space.
Blue Origin, headed by Jeff Bezos, has plans to conduct passenger launches to the moon by 2024. SpaceX, headed by Elon Musk, is aiming for Mars, with plans to launch a cargo mission in 2022, followed by a crew two years after. The rockets supplied by SpaceX already launch at altitudes higher than the test projections of the SpaceShipTwo. SpaceX also has plans to start passenger flights to the moon in 2023.
Ready for Take-Off
In the words of Richard Branson, “next year, I’ll be going up.” The high flying businessman intends to be among the first passengers on the first commercial flight. Despite a rocky journey with setbacks and failed launches along the way, the spaceport in New Mexico is ready for use, and with two successful test launches, the company intends to start commercial flights by the end of the year.
So, are Virgin Galactic selling suborbital holidays? Well, the company may begin trading by the end of the year, and those who have the high-risk-high-reward attitude have already set their sights on buying their shares. They’re definitely on the right track, and if they keep going, outer space may soon become a holiday destination.