Business

Virgin Galactic stalls on launch dates, but flights to space still selling

By Branko Brkic 4 March 2010

SpaceShipTwo, Richard Branson's relatively cheap answer to otherwise exorbitant commercial space travel ($200,000 a ticket vs. $21 million), is going to take off later than expected. The customers don't seem to care, though.

In December 2009, as readers of The Daily Maverick may recall, Richard Branson took a formidable swipe at Eric C. Anderson’s Space Adventures, until then the only company in the world to offer commercial space travel – and the same firm that took Mark Shuttleworth into orbit in 2002. Branson’s SpaceShipTwo, we reported, was Virgin Galactic’s answer to the $21-million-a-ticket round-trip offered by Anderson. On its unveiling in the Mojave desert, Branson told the media he hoped to be offering seats for $200,000 a ticket.

We also reported at the time that the six-passenger (two-pilot) craft was expected to begin test flights in 2010, with the first commercial flights planned for 2011 or 2012. In a conference in Dubai on Wednesday March 3, Virgin Galactic’s president Will Whitehorn announced that the date for test flights would be pushed out to 2011, while the inaugural commercial flights might happen as late as 2013.

“I will not say whether it [the start of commercial flights] will be 2011, 2012 or 2013,” said Whitehorn. “It’s going to be when we’re ready.”

Funding for the project, according to Whitehorn, wasn’t the issue. In July 2009, Virgin Galactic sold a 32 percent stake in the business to Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments – at a price of $280 million. While the company plans to initiate its spaceflights out of California, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Aabar will also be constructing “spaceport” facilities in Abu Dhabi to the tune of $100 million in development costs.

BusinessWeek, among other media brands, provided an update on ticket sales. “Whitehorn said the company has received nearly 330 bookings from customers who have put down deposits of up to $200,000 each to secure a seat. The company has so far taken in about $45 million in deposits, he said.

“That enthusiasm has the company expecting to be profitable within two years of starting operations”, Whitehorn said.

By staff writer

Read more: Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek

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