BROOMFIELD, Colo. — Virgin Galactic is in the final phases of returning its suborbital spaceplane to commercial service as it ramps up development of a next-generation vehicle.
In a Feb. 28 earnings call to discuss the company’s 2022 fourth quarter and full year financial results, Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Michael Colglazier said commercial flights of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Unity, are slated to begin in the second quarter, a schedule the company has kept in recent months after previous extensive delays.
The call took place one day after VMS Eve, the “mothership” aircraft originally called WhiteKnightTwo, flew from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California to Spaceport America in New Mexico. VMS Eve had been in Mojave since October 2021 for an extensive overhaul that included replacing the pylon to which the spaceplane was attached as well as the aircraft’s horizontal stabilizers.
“All this comprehensive work on Eve took longer than we originally planned.” Colglazier acknowledged. “We have now completed our enhancements, and I am incredibly appreciative of our team for the long hours that they put in to return these ships to flight.”
VSS Unity remained at Spaceport America during the overhaul of VMS Eve, and the company says both vehicles are now ready for a series of test flights from the spaceport, which will include both a glide flight and a powered test flight of VSS Unity, the latter with Virgin Galactic personnel on board. That would be the first flight of the vehicle under rocket power since the July 2021 suborbital flight that carried company founder Richard Branson and several other company employees.
“Following successful completion and verification of the analysis for those missions and consistent with our recent outlook regarding the flight schedule, we expect to commence commercial service in Q2,” he said.
That first commercial flight will be for the Italian Air Force. Three mission specialists will go on the vehicle, said Sirisha Bandla, vice president for government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, during a Feb. 27 talk at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference here.
They will do a mix of experiments, including some each person will wear as well as those they will oversee in payload racks and other experiments that will operate autonomously. “They’ve really taken advantage of the entire mission and are doing quite a few different things,” she said.
The company will then move into flying its backlog of about 800 private astronauts along with additional research flights. Virgin Galactic foresees flying VSS Unity once a month, but Colglazier said it would take the company a little time to get into that regular cadence.
“We see a path to be on a monthly cadence in reasonable short order,” he said on the call. “There’s nothing specifically in our way of being at a monthly cadence, I think it’s just shaking out the operation and learning how to turn the ship on a consistent basis.”
He described getting VSS Unity flying regularly “priority one” for Virgin Galactic. Its second priority is to build a next generation of vehicles, its Delta-class spaceplanes and a new line of motherships. The company made several announcements last year about partnerships to produce the new vehicles, including a factory in the Phoenix area where it will build the Delta-class vehicles.
Colglazier said that this year “is now focused on completing designs for both the next generation motherships and Delta spaceships, building the required tooling and beginning the parts fabrication for the ships.” Those vehicles are slated to enter commercial service in 2026.
Left in limbo, though, is VSS Imagine, the company’s next suborbital spaceplane. The company said in November that it was slowing work on the vehicle to focus on getting VMS Eve and VSS Unity back to flight while starting development of its next-generation vehicles.
Colglazier offered no updates on the plans for VSS Imagine in the latest earnings call saying its development was in “idle capacity” currently. “We’re going to make sure we have both of those aforementioned scopes of work dialed in and well in hand,” he said of returning to flight and next-generation vehicle work, “and when that happens, we’ll come pick up Imagine and see where we want to go.”
Virgin Galactic reported revenue of $2.3 million for 2022, with a net loss of $500 million. The company had negative free cash flow of $135 million in the fourth quarter of 2022 and projected similar negative free cash flow for the first quarter of 2023.
Doug Ahrens, chief financial officer, said on the call that Virgin Galactic has “pretty significant” ability to adjust spending if needed to reduce those losses. “We’d rather not do that, because we see great returns on these investments, and we want to invest in the vehicles and expansion,” he said. “But we could if we needed to and spend less on the infrastructure and the fleet development.”