Virgin Galactic flies, Virgin Orbit sinks. Space tourism and suborbital flights, private stop & go

Virgin Galactic flies, Virgin Orbit sinks.  Space tourism and suborbital flights, private stop & go

Virgin Galactic is flying againand wants to open, this time for real, the market of suborbital flights for space tourists as early as June, with an Italian crew that has been waiting for almost two years. It happens just as a private person brought by the private companies Axiom and SpaceX is staying on board the International Space Station. It's the moment when the suborbital tourism business really seems to be able to take off.

A fate totally opposite from that of Richard Branson's other creature, Virgin Orbit, which in the same days put all the assets up for saleincluding headquarters in Long Beach, California after declared bankruptcy in April.

The "good company" flies

It had been two years since an aircraft with a Virgin Galactic branded blue and white livery had not put its nose to the edge of the atmosphere. It was July 11, 2021 and Branson was also on board. The US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had subsequently imposed a stop due to an anomaly in the trajectory of that flight.

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And Virgin had taken time to update and make improvements. Yesterday, the VSS Unity shuttle detached again from its Mothership at 15 kilometers altitude and ignited its rockets. There were no paying customers on board, but two pilots and a crew of four, all company employees. The spaceplane reached about 87 kilometers high in the New Mexico sky, it only skimmed the Karman line, the conventional limit where space begins, but the test was a success. According to Virgin Galactic's own statements, it is everything is ready to bring up customers who have already paid for their ticket, as early as the end of June.

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And there are many. A year ago, the company announced that it had sold 800 seats to space tourists eager to look at the Earth from above, appreciate the curvature of the horizon and float, for a few minutes, in weightlessness. They are those accumulated in all the years since sales were opened. Meanwhile, the price has shot up from $200,000 to $450,000. For a journey that takes just over an hour from take-off to landing. It is too early to tell if Virgin Galactic will be able to make itself sustainable.

The VSS Unity attached to the mother ship during one of the first flights - Credits: Virgin galactic

The VSS Unity attached to the mother ship during one of the first flights - Credits: Virgin galactic

The first commercial mission will be all Italian: Galactic 01. Grounded after the FAA stopped flights two years ago, she should finally take off at the end of June. On board will be the Colonel of the Air Force Walter Villadei, Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Landolfi and Cnr engineer Pantaleone Carlucci to accomplish scientific tests and experiments. This is confirmed by an Air Force document which initiates an assignment procedure to an international insurance broker, Marsh spa, for the stipulation of insurance for the two soldiers and in which reference is made to the Cnr as the contractor policy for your researcher.


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The "bad company" closes its doors

The system is similar if we like, the results very different. Branson tried to give the world an option: launch people but also (small) satellites from any airport, without the need for a rocket and a vertical ramp. Virgin Orbit also uses a mother plane, a Boeing 747 with a Virgin red livery, renamed Cosmic girl, which carries a rocket under its belly, to be unhooked and ignited to fly towards orbit with its load. Between 2021 and 2022 it successfully completed four missions, sending cubesats into low orbit mainly for institutional bodies such as the armed forces and the Pentagon. A pace too low, perhaps, and with costs too highthe. The beginning of the end was in January: the first attempt from a non-US site, that of Cornwall, in the United Kingdom. It would have been a coup with great effect: finally a satellite launch from a normal civilian airport. Cosmic girl took off over the Atlantic and dropped Launcher one but it didn't reach orbit and investor confidence plummeted.

Cosmic girl releases Virgin Orbit Launcher one - Credits: Virgin Orbit

Cosmic girl releases Virgin Orbit Launcher one - Credits: Virgin Orbit

With a debt of 50 million dollars and the failure of an agreement for new investments, followed by Chapter 11, the announcement of bankruptcy, in April. In May, Virgin orbit's competitors gobbled up nearly $36 million in chunks of the company. Rocket Lab (specializing in small payload launches) has acquired its headquarters and manufacturing facility in Long Beach, California (13,400 square meters) for $16.1 million which also includes 3D printers, a special tank welding machine and other equipment. Launcher Inc took over the test site in Mojave, California for $2.7 million. Cosmic girl also has a new owner: bought by Stratolaunch, the company that built the world's largest plane, for 17 million dollars. Although Virgin orbit is almost no more, the company said its remaining staff are working on the next flight, scheduled for this year.

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The Race of the Three Billionaires

Therefore, only the other protagonist of this new space race is missing. Also Blue Origin of the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, after seven consecutive successful pitches, he had to interrupt commercial flights with his New Shepard. In September 2022, a rocket engine anomaly brought about the early termination of the flight. There was nobody in the capsule that Blue Origin uses to carry the occupants over 100 kilometers in altitude with a vertical ascent and descent, because it was a flight dedicated to experiments in microgravity. But the security system still worked perfectly, projecting the shuttle away from the vector, which then landed on the ground thanks to the parachutes. The resumption of service is expected by the end of 2023. The only one who has not suffered any stop is Elon Musk: the Falcon 9 is a monster of reliability and finding tourists, space agencies or private companies willing to shell out millions of dollars for a trip around the planet, to the ISS or to the moon does not seem to be a problem. As Branson himself stated: "There's room for 20 companies to take people up there. The more shuttles we build, the more we can lower the prices and be able to meet demand in the next few years."

The analysis

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