Virgin Galactic’s shares initially rose but then fell on Friday after the space tourism company announced that its next space test will be conducted by founder Sir Richard Branson.
The mission – with two pilots leading the VSS Unity spacecraft carried by Branson alongside three Virgin Galactic employees – is scheduled to launch July 11 from the company’s operations center at Spaceport America, New Mexico.
Not only does the flight mark Branson’s long-awaited journey into space, but it also marks an attempt to beat his billionaire Jeff Bezos. The latter announced last month that it will take off on July 20th with the first passenger space flight for its company Blue Origin.
Virgin Galactic stock rose up to 25% shortly after it opened before slipping and closing the day 4% to $ 44.94 per share.
The stock has more than doubled so far this year but has seen wild fluctuations – it climbed above $ 60 per share in February before falling to nearly $ 15 in May and then rebounding.
Sir Richard Branson in his Under Armor space suit.
This will be Virgin Galactic’s fourth development space flight to date as passengers test VSS Unity’s cabin in preparation for the company’s plan to begin flying tourists and explorers in early 2022.
Virgin Galactic said it will live stream the space flight for the first time, a feed that will be available on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.
The company has approximately 600 reservations for tickets for future flights, which sell for prices between $ 200,000 and $ 250,000 each. Branson announced in a video on Thursday, “When we return from space, I’ll be announcing something very exciting to give more people the chance to become astronauts.”
Turn the schedule around
VSS Unity ignites its rocket engine shortly after take-off for its third space flight on May 22, 2021.
Founded in 2004, Virgin Galactic has spent years testing its spacecraft system, with multiple setbacks and a fatal crash in 2014 delaying the company’s plans to fly paying customers.
VSS Unity takes off from a jet-powered carrier aircraft before accelerating to more than three times the speed of sound. The spaceship then spends a few minutes in weightlessness over 50 miles (80 kilometers) – the limit that the US officially recognizes as space – before slowly turning around and gliding back to Earth to land on the runway at Spaceport America.
Branson postpones flight up
After completing the third space test so far on May 22, Virgin Galactic leadership said there are three more space tests remaining. The first was to carry four passengers to test the cabin, the second was to carry Branson, and the third and final test was to fly members of the Italian Air Force for professional astronaut training.
But Branson’s announcement on Thursday represents a reorganization of that flight plan and makes his flight the next on deck. The rescheduling also came after Virgin Galactic obtained a key FAA license that allowed the company to fly passengers on future space flights.
Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier insisted in a CNBC interview last week that safety is “the first consideration”. Colglazier noted that the company would not announce its next flight until “we checked all of these boxes and followed all steps”.
Launching by July 11th will require Virgin Galactic to prep its spacecraft faster than ever as its flight turns 50 days old on May 22nd. The fastest Virgin Galactic that VSS Unity flipped between space flights is 71 days.
Jeff Bezos takes a look at the New Shepard rocket booster on the landing pad after a successful NS-15 flight and landing in April 2021.
Bezos’ company has also spent years preparing for the launch of its first passengers. Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket has flown more than a dozen successful unmanned space flights, the last being launched in April. Beside Bezos are his brother Mark, an unannounced winner of a $ 28 million public auction, and legendary aerospace pioneer Wally Funk.
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith pointed out that his company’s spacecraft flies slightly higher than Virgin Galactic’s. New Shepard passes a few kilometers above the internationally recognized boundary of space, the Kármán Line, at an altitude of 100 kilometers (or about 328,000 feet).
“We wish them a great and safe flight, but they don’t fly over the Karman Line and it’s a very different experience,” Smith said in a statement to CNBC.
Colglazier, who spoke to CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street” Friday, replied Smith.
“We wish the Blue Origin people the best – they do amazing things … and the more people go into space, the more we open that door to everyone else,” says Colglazier. “We’re going across the astronaut line; we have done that in the past. We actually – the only commercial company that is flown – flown private astronauts or individuals over the astronaut line and came down with astronaut wings. “
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