Virgin Galactic’s Sales Numbers Don’t Add Up

Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

I’ve been doing a bit of research into Virgin Galactic over the last few days.  I’ve come to a realization that the company’s ticket sales and cancellation numbers don’t add up in the wake of SpaceShipTwo’s crash.

Prior to the crash, Richard Branson was claiming the company had 800 ticket holders, or close to that number. He reiterated the figure three days after the crash in an interview on “CBS This Morning”.

“It was an incredibly sad day, particularly for Mike Alsbury’s family, and a real blow for the 400 wonderful engineers and team that work for Virgin Galactic and for the 800 people waiting to go to space,” Branson said.

On Nov. 11, BetaWired reported the following:

George Whitesides says that around 24 prospective passengers have decided to back out of the trip in the wake of the crash that led to the death of Michael Alsbury, the space plane’s co-pilot. This is a drop in the bucket compared to the around 800 reservations for the nascent commercial spaceflight company, with luminaries such as Leonardo diCaprio, Angelina Jolie and Stephen Hawking all still interested in catching a flight on SpaceShipTwo….

Whitesides said that the fact that a double handful of passengers have looked for a refund isn’t necessarily surprising, though he remains optimistic on the prospects of space tourism, especially in light of Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson‘s dream of making space travel accessible for everyday people somewhere down the road.

The overwhelming majority of passengers have been telling Virgin Galactic that they’re still interested and that the company should keep going, the CEO said. Whitesides said the Virgin Galactic team is strong enough to overcome the challenges put before it and keep pushing even in the face of tragedy, adding that opening up access to space is a goal that’s “deeply worthy.”

Even with the 24 cancellations, there are still prospective passengers willing to throw the dice. According to Clare Pelly, astronaut experience manager for Virgin Galactic, an additional two passengers have signed up for the suborbital flight service in the wake of the tragic crash.

So, assuming an even 800 ticket holders, Virgin Galactic would have been left with 778 people still signed up for trips to space. The actual number would be somewhat less if we assume almost 800 tickets had been sold, but the remaining ticket holders after cancellations would have been in the high 700’s at that point.

Here’s the interesting thing. The number dropped to around 700 by the beginning of 2015. That’s according to Alan Boyle, the official chronicler of all things Virgin Galactic through NBCUniversal’s multi-platform partnership with Virgin Galacticto track the development of SpaceShipTwo.

About 700 customers have paid as much as $250,000 apiece to reserve seats on future SpaceShipTwo flights to the edge of outer space. The timetable for commercial operations depends on how the flight test program proceeds once it resumes.

So, what could account for such a sharp drop? There are two possibilities.

The first is that Branson was greatly exaggerating the number of ticket sales prior to the crash. Instead of 800 or nearly 800, ticket sales might have been around 720 to 725. So, a net loss of say 20 to 22 customers would place the number at around 700.

In a story published on Nov. 11 about ticket holders who decided to stick with Virgin Galactic, Boyle uses the phrase “more than 700 customers” and cites a 3 percent cancellation rate. That would put cancellations at about two dozen.

The second possibility is that ticket sales were close to 800, and that Virgin Galactic has lost more ticket holders than it has stated publicly. More losses could have happened after the initial round of stories were published.

It will be interesting to see what happens to the ticket numbers once the results of the investigation into the crash are published. It could be a vote of confidence in Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites relating to how they build SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo and ran the flight test program.

However, the outcome could be quite the opposite. My guess is investigators will find a lot of problems and issues with how things were done.  Such findings could seriously dent Virgin Galactic’s reputation and cause a lack of confidence among ticket holders.

It’ll be very interesting to see what happens.

  • Hemingway

    New Mexicans are getting fed up with Virgin Galactic’s false promises. Our taxes paid for Sir Richard Branson’s spaceport. Thank goodness for Mr. Messier’s accurate reporting. We are getting tired of the VG PR machine and its propaganda.

  • wobblybadger

    And I have no doubt that the Spaceport will have a productive and profitable future …. just not this year maybe. But really, what is a “promise” in the context of going to Space? No one can “promise” anything and those who take those promises without a large pinch of salt are themselves as much at fault as the promiser. Deadlines will come and go, accidents will happen, budgets will overrun, as history has proven time and time again. These things come as part and parcel of exploring new territory and new technologies. I am fed up with hearing people whining about how Branson “promised” us this or that and how awful it is he has not delivered by now. Thank heavens there are people as brave and bold and wealthy as he and Musk are and that they are willing and able to do this stuff in the first place, otherwise we would all still be sitting looking at NASA and bleating about how much their bloated budget and schedule was over-running and how little we were getting in return.

  • The Man from 2010 TK7

    Bill Richardson had this to say about funding the Spaceport:

    “I hope New Mexico is branded as a place where someone with a new idea can make it happen”

    Instead, it looks like New Mexico is a place that doesn’t understand investment risk. Why would anyone think space tourism was a sure thing?

  • wobblybadger

    I personally think that Space Tourism is a sure thing, it is the timeline that is not. I agree completely with your comment on investment risk though!

  • Douglas Messier

    This was a mistake.

    This was based on what I saw. Or at least what I thought I saw from the ground. Ken Brown, who was standing beside me taking the photos, thought he saw the same thing. It was an easy mistake to make given our vantage point. It’s a problem with eyewitness accounts of these types of events. Early ones are often wrong. It’s what we believed at the time.

    That mistake pales compared with the ones made during a program that’s killed four people already and nearly blew up part of the airport last June without coming anywhere near space. That’s not helping this nascent industry.

    There are good people here, and I feel for them. I really do. But, many of them are trapped in a screwed up program. Others voted with their feet and have departed because of the problems. I can’t close my eyes to all of that. Not when there are lives at stake.

  • The Man from 2010 TK7

    Just remember that many look to your blog for information – please make sure your reporting actually is as objective as you say it is.

    >There are good people here, and I feel for them. I really do.

    Good, good – same here!

  • windbourne

    fair enough on criticism (I have horrible memory so ….).
    He was wrong and I would suggest in the future that he should retract statements when he is wrong.

    OTOH, he has been nearly spot on with VG for just about everything else.

  • Douglas Messier

    Just remember that the comments sections of these posts is not for making ignorant, unfounded, ad hominen accusations about the identities and motives of other posters here.

    It’s the sort of stuff that gets people banned around here. And you’re not going to get around it by simply making up a new name on Disques.

  • The Man from 2010 TK7

    I think you’re just upset because I question your knowledge and intentions.

    Go ahead and ban me if you can’t not act like a child when someone doesn’t agree with you.

    I’m sure I’ll be able to get over not being allowed to post comments on Parabolic Arc anymore.

  • OK. Whatever you wish.

  • Kim Audette

    “If” is a word best not used in the public interest.

  • ChristopherErwinHogan

    “My guess is investigators will find a lot of problems and issues with how things were done.”

    What indications are there that they will find “a lot” of problems? In spaceflight, even one or two problems can be catastrophic. Challenger blew up because of an O ring. Another shuttle burned up because a few heat tiles wear knocked off.