Virgin Galactic Pivots High-speed Aircraft Program in a Crowded Field

Credit: Douglas Messier

Virgin Galactic’s record of delays and broken promises raises doubts about its ambitious supersonic aircraft project as company founder Richard Branson fights to save his struggling empire in the midst of a global pandemic.

Updated on 10/27/20 at 12:39 p.m. PDT to include spending comparison of Virgin Orbit to Rocket Lab.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Richard Branson’s dream of a suborbital Virgin Galactic vehicle zipping passengers between distant cities at hypersonic speeds above Mach 5 (6,174 km/h, 3,836 mph) is dead. At least for now.

In August, the space tourism company he founded pivoted to a slower supersonic Mach 3 (3,704 km/h, 2,302 mph) business jet. Virgin Galactic unveiled a mission concept for an aircraft that would carry 9-19 passengers at a cruising altitude of 60,000 ft (18,288 m).

Virgin Galactic’s aircraft will “incorporate custom cabin layouts to address customer needs, including Business or First Class seating arrangements. The aircraft design also aims to help lead the way toward use of state-of-the-art sustainable aviation fuel. Baselining sustainable technologies and techniques into the aircraft design early on is expected to also act as a catalyst to adoption in the rest of the aviation community,” the company said.

Virgin Galactic Mach 3 jet. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

“Virgin Galactic is designing the aircraft for a range of operational scenarios, including service for passengers on long-distance commercial aviation routes,” the company added. “The aircraft would take off and land like any other passenger aircraft and be expected to integrate into existing airport infrastructure and international airspace around the world.”

What Virgin Galactic unveiled was “the first stage design scope for the build of its high speed aircraft design.” The company said it completed a

Mission Concept Review (MCR) program milestone and authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Center for Emerging Concepts and Innovation to work with Virgin Galactic to outline a certification framework….

The Mission Concept Review, which included representatives from NASA, is an important program milestone at which the Virgin Galactic high speed team confirmed that, based on the research and analysis work completed, its design concept can meet the high-level requirements and objectives of the mission. Previously, NASA signed a Space Act Agreement with Virgin Galactic to collaborate on high speed technologies.  

In other words, there’s not all that much there. Not yet, anyway. The company has a long and very expensive road before it get to that first flight test.

Virgin Galactic believes its suborbital SpaceShipTwo vehicle, which travels at Mach 3, gives the company a wealth of data and operational experience that will help it develop a supersonic aircraft. It is the only current U.S. winged vehicle known to fly at that speed.

SpaceShipTwo Unity in its first powered flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

However, an air-launched spaceship/glider with a hybrid rocket motor that fires for a minute is far from a supersonic, ocean-hopping airplane. How much of that experience will translate remains to be seen.

The supersonic project will be overseen by George Whitesides in his new position as Virgin Galactic’s Chief Space Officer. Whitesides stepped down as CEO in July after nearly a decade at the helm. He was replaced by former Disney executive Michael Colglazier.

Partnerships

When it unveiled plans for the jet in August, Virgin Galactic announced the signing of a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Rolls-Royce to collaborate on developing engine technology to power the aircraft.

Following Virgin Galactic’s announcement, Rolls-Royce and UK-based Reaction Engines announced “a new strategic partnership agreement to develop high-speed aircraft propulsion systems and explore applications for Reaction Engines’ thermal management technology within civil and defence aerospace gas turbine engines and hybrid-electric systems.

Credit: Reaction Engines

“Additionally, Rolls-Royce is making a further investment in Reaction Engines as part of a wider funding round. The two companies have been working together since 2018, including on the first phase of a UK Ministry of Defence contract to undertake design studies, research, development, analysis and experimentation related to high-Mach advanced propulsion systems,” the companies announced.

Reaction Engines is developing SABRE, a precooled air-breathing rocket engine capable of propelling the single-stage Skylon space plane into low Earth orbit. The propulsion system can be adapted for supersonic vehicles.

In 2016, Branson’s Virgin Group announced an agreement to provide manufacturing and test support for Boom Supersonic’s aircraft development. The support will be provided through Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Company.

Overture supersonic passenger jet (Credit: Boom Supersonic)

Boom is developing the XB-1, a subscale supersonic demonstrator that will begin flight tests next year at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The aircraft will test technology for Overture, a 55-seat jetliner that will fly at Mach 2.2 (2,717 km/h, 1,688 mph).

Boom hopes to introduce Overture into passenger service in 2029. The Virgin Group has placed an order for the first 10 Overture airplanes.

Boeing, which canceled its 2707 supersonic competitor to the Concorde in 1971, invested $20 million after Virgin Galactic went public last October. The two companies said they are working together on high-speed flight.

How much help Boeing can provide for Virgin Galactic’s supersonic aircraft is a good question. The aerospace giant is reeling from COVID-19 pandemic’s slowdown in air travel. The company’s newest jet, the 737 Max, has been grounded since March 2019 after two crashes that killed 346 people.

Boeing also signed an agreement last year to provide financing and engineering, manufacturing and flight-test services to another company developing a supersonic business jet. Aerion’s AS2 aircraft would carry 12 passengers at a top speed of Mach 1.4 (1,729 km/h, 1,074 mph).

Financing

In August, Virgin Galactic announced the sale of additional common stock. The sale of 23.6 million shares at $19.50 apiece grossed $460.2 million, before underwriting discounts and commissions.

The company made no specific mention of the Mach 3 airliner project in its public statement about the stock sale. 

“Virgin Galactic intends to use the net proceeds from this offering primarily for general corporate purposes, including working capital, general and administrative matters and capital expenditures,” the company said.

How much of the money raised will be used for the supersonic project is unclear. The company needs a lot of money to just to complete the buildout of its suborbital fleet, which has yet to fly any paying passengers.

New SpaceShipTwo reaches weight on wheels milestone. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Two SpaceShipTwo vehicles are in advanced stages of construction to supplement VSS Unity, which is now in flight test. Two additional SpaceShipTwos and a second WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft are yet to be built.

Virgin Galactic is also bleeding cash. The company suffered a net loss of $123 million during the first half of 2020, with minimal revenues during those six months and little improvement expected for the second half of the year. Revenue generating tourism flights won’t start until next year.

A Crowded Field

Virgin Galactic is only the latest entrant in an increasingly crowded field of companies seeking to revive an era of civilian supersonic travel that ended when the Concorde was retired in 2003. Two companies — SpaceX and Hermeus — are even targeting hypersonic flight above Mach 5.

Supersonic & Hypersonic Programs
Company/
Agency
Vehicle NamePassengersMachFirst Flight
ArionAS2121.42024
Spike AerospaceS-51212-181.6TBA
Virgin GalacticTBA9-193.0TBA
Boom SupersonicXB-1*02.22021
Boom SupersonicOverture552.22025
ExoSonicTBA701.8TBA
HermeusTBATBA5+TBA
SpaceXStarshipTBA20.02020
NASA – Lockheed MartinX-59 QueSST*01.422022
JAXATBA^1005.0TBA
* Supersonic demonstrator
^Research program

[For details on all of the above programs, see Supersonic & Hypersonic Civilian Transport Projects in Development]

Like Virgin Galactic, most of these companies are aiming to siphon off business class travelers from slower subsonic jets. They envision airlines transitioning to a mixed fleet with supersonic aircraft carrying high-end fliers.

Virgin Galactic faces competition from Aerion and Spike Aerospace in the supersonic business jet market. Spike Aerospace’s S-512 would reach Mach 1.6 (1,976 km/hr, 1,228 mph) while carrying 12-18 passengers. Aerion’s AS2 would carry a dozen passengers at a slower Mach 1.4 (1,729 km/h, 1,074 mph).

Both Aerion and Spike have said they have quiet supersonic technology that would allow their jets to fly over land without creating excessively loud sonic booms.

Concorde, which flew at Mach 2 (2,470 k/hr, 1,535 mph), was limited to over ocean routes due to the sonic booms it created. The restriction greatly reduced the number of potential routes for the jetliner, limiting sales to airlines. Only 20 Concordes were ever built, with 12 entering service.

NASA’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology X-plane, or QueSST, will fly over communities in the United States to demonstrate quiet supersonic. (Credits: Lockheed Martin)

Virgin Galactic made no mention of its aircraft having low-boom capability. However, the company has been working with NASA, which has a program aimed specifically at developing such technology.

The space agency’s X-59 QueSST aircraft is a Mach 1.42 (1,753 km/h, 1,090 mph) demonstrator that will test low-boom technology. The experimental aircraft, which is being built by Lockheed Martin, is set to fly in 2022.

Let’s take a closer look at Virgin Galactic’s business jet competitors, Aerion and Spike.

Aerion

The AS2 is designed to fly at speeds up to Mach 1.4 or approximately 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) per hour. (Credit: Aerion Corp.)

AS2
Business Jet
Capacity: 12 Passengers
Maximum Speed: Mach 1.4 (1,729 km/h, 1,074 mph)
First Flight: 2024
FAA Certification: 2026

Aerion’s AS2 will have a maximum speed of Mach 1.4. The company said AS2 will be capable of the fastest subsonic cruise of any commercial jet at Mach 0.95 (1,173 km/h/729 mph).

Aerion says its Boomless Cruise Technology will allow it to fly over land. AS2 will be powered by GE Aviation’s Affinity engine, which features “a twin-shaft, twin-fan powerplant controlled by a next-generation full authority digital engine control (FADEC) for enhanced dispatch reliability and onboard diagnostics.”

Aerion said AS2 will reduce travel times as shown below:

FROMTOAS2SUBSONICTIME SAVING
New YorkLondon4h 04m5h 59m1h 55m
New YorkMoscow5h 58m8h 03m2h 05m
New YorkTokyo9h 36m11h 33m1h 57m
New YorkCape Town9h 56m13h 35m3h 39m
New YorkSydney13h 43m18h 06m4h 23m
Source: Aerion

In February 2019, Aerion and Boeing announced a partnership to work together on developing the AS2 jet. Boeing is providing financing and engineering, manufacturing and flight-test services.

“Together with Boeing, we’re creating a faster, more connected future with tremendous possibilities for enhancing humanity’s productivity and potential,” said Aerion Chairman, President and CEO Tom Vice.

In April 2020, Aerion announced a deal with the state of Florida to relocated from Reno, Nev. to Melbourne. The company plans to build a global headquarters and integrated campus for the research, design and manufacture of the AS2.

Aerion said it plans a multi-year investment of $300 million in Florida that is expected to generate 675 jobs paying an average of $105,000 each by 2026.

Partners: Boeing (financing, engineering, manufacturing, flight test support), GE Aviation (engines), Honeywell Aerospace (avionics), Spirit AeroSystems (aerostructures), Safran (landing gear system), GKN Aerospace (empennage, electrical wiring and interconnection systems), Aernnova (aerostructures manufacturing), Potez Aéronautique (aircraft doors)

Spike Aerospace

S-512 supersonic jet over New York City. (Credit: Spike Aerospace)

S-512
Business Jet
Capacity: 12-18 passengers
Maximum Speed: Mach 1.6 (1,976 km/hr, 1,228 mph)
Range: 7,135 miles (11,483 km)

Spike said that the S-512’s patent-pending Quiet Supersonic Flight Technology will allow the business jet to travel at Mach 1.6 over land without creating a loud sonic boom on the ground.

How the S-512 aircraft would cut travel times between New York and major cities. (Credit:: Spike Aerospace)

Spike has said the S-512 would cut travel time between major cities by nearly half. For example, a trip from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to London Heathrow would be reduced from 6 hours 12 minutes to 3 hours 18 minutes.

The S-512 supersonic aircraft’s windowless Multiplex Digital business jet digital cabin. (Credit: Spike Aerospace)

The S-512 will feature a windowless Multiplex Digital cabin that will give “the traveler an incredible, panoramic view of the outside world on large full-width digital screens,” the company said.

Partners: Siemens PLM Software, MAYA Simulation (software development, engineering services), Greenpoint Technologies (jet interiors), BRPH (development of manufacturing and test facilities), Quartus Engineering (advanced engineering)

Branson’s Struggling Empire

Richard Branson celebrates the first Virgin Galactic trade on the New York Stock Exchange. (Credit Virgin Galactic)

How soon Virgin Galactic’s aircraft might fly is unclear. The company didn’t provide a timeline or a cost estimate for developing, testing and certifying the vehicle to carry passengers.

Branson, who is usually optimistic to a fault about such things, sounded anything but cheery during The Wall Street Journal’s Tech Live conference last Tuesday. The Journal reported:

Mr. Branson, however, tempered his earlier exuberance about expanding Virgin Galactic’s strategy to provide deep-space tourism or transport passengers and cargo around the globe in minutes. “We would love to do point-to-point travel,” he said, but “right now, everybody is just focused on” the initial goal of “being able to get people into space on a regular basis.”

Virgin Galactic has been trying to get tourists into space aboard SpaceShipTwo since 2004. It has repeatedly pushed back the start of commercial operations that were originally forecast to begin as early as 2007.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated Branson’s travel dependent Virgin Group by leaving its airplane seats, hotel rooms and cruise ship cabins empty.

Virgin Australia Airlines declared bankruptcy and was bought by an investment firm. Branson’s flagship Virgin Atlantic carrier declared bankruptcy in the United States as part of an $1.5 billion bailout plan that’s now been approved by the courts and shareholders.

Virgin Hotels are struggling for customers as Virgin Voyages has been forced to postpone the maiden voyage of its first cruise ship.

While Virgin Galactic continues to bleed cash, the company it spun off to launch satellites into orbit is need of a cash infusion. Virgin Orbit is seeking an additional $200 million in investment after having already raised $1 billion.

Virgin Orbit has developed a small-satellite booster that is air launched from a modified Boeing 747. The first launch attempt in May ended in failure. Virgin Orbit is planning to make a second attempt by the end of this year.

Peter Beck, founder and CEO of rival Rocket Lab, has expressed surprise at the amount that Virgin Orbit is spending. He said Rocket Lab, which is about to attempt its 15th orbital launch, has spent about $180 million thus far.

Virgin Galactic, ironically, has been a lifeline for Branson. The billionaire has sold off shares worth more than $300 million to help keep his empire afloat, making him a minority shareholder in the space tourism company he founded.

The Money Pit and the Pendulum

Although precise figures are unavailable, Branson’s space dreams have probably cost the Virgin Group and its partners more than $2 billion thus far. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent in the months and years ahead developing the capability to launch tourists and satellites into space.

Neither Virgin Galactic nor Virgin Orbit has produced much for all the time, money and effort put into them. SpaceShipTwo has flown two suborbital flight tests, the most recent one 20 months ago. Virgin Orbit has one failed launch under its belt.

This is not a very good track record upon which to launch a supersonic jetliner program that will take many years and soak up billions of dollars. Finding the money will require convincing investors and strategic partners that Virgin Galactic can deliver on its promises.

Time will tell whether the company’s dream of a Mach 3 airliner will move from vaporware to hardware.