by Douglas Messier
One week before Virgin Galactic is expected to report another large quarterly loss, the company’s WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve took to the skies on Thursday over Spaceport America for the first time since June 25.
The flight was the first of four tests designed to pave the way for Virgin Galactic to begin commercial SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism flights with VSS Unity during the first quarter of next year.
Virgin Galactic has said it plans to conduct another flight of VMS Eve before the mother ship takes VSS Unity aloft to continued the SpaceShipTwo program’s powered flight test program later this fall.
On that flight, VSS Unity will carry a load of microgravity experiments in the passenger cabin. It will be the suborbital space plane’s first powered flight since late February 2019 — a gap that now stretches 20 months.
A second VSS Unity suborbital flight test will follow with four test subjects in the cabin to test the experience for future space tourists.
If both tests go well, Virgin Galactic plans to begin commercial suborbital flights during the first quarter of next year. Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson plans to be aboard the maiden operational launch.
If the current flight schedule holds, Virgin Galactic will have declared the SpaceShipTwo test program complete after 11 powered flights. Four of those tests would be suborbital flights above 50 miles (80.4 km).
The first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, was destroyed during the program’s fourth powered flight test six years ago on Oct. 31, 2019. Co-pilot Mike Alsbury died when the vehicle broke over the Mojave Desert in California. Pilot Pete Siebold survived with serious injuries.
VMS Eve‘s flight test on Thursday, which came seven days before the third quarter earnings call, continued the pattern of showing progress before reporting quarterly earnings. The company went public a year ago on Oct. 28, 2019.
WhiteKnightTwo relocated VSS Unity from its manufacturing and test facility at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California to its operational base at Spaceport America in New Mexico on Feb. 13. That flight took place 12 days prior to the company’s first earnings call on Feb. 25 where it reported a net loss of $73 million.
Virgin Galactic billed the 3-hour flight as a test because it exposed both vehicles to cold conditions at high altitudes.
VSS Unity made its first ever flight at Spaceport America on May 1, four days before the company’s first quarter earnings call on May 5 where it reported a $60 million net loss. The spacecraft glided to a runway landing after being dropped from VMS Eve.
VSS Unity completed a second glide flight from the desert spaceport on June 25, which was five days before the end of the second quarter.
That test enable the company to point to report progress on the flight test program when it reported a net quarterly loss of $63 million on Aug. 3.
In lieu of a recent flight test, company officials that same day unveiled a mission concept for a supersonic Mach 3 (3,704 km/h, 2,302 mph) business jet capable of carrying 9-19 passengers.
Virgin Galactic also announced a non-binding memorandum of understanding with Rolls-Royce to work together on engine technology to power the aircraft.
Virgin Galactic has reported a net loss of $123 million for the first half of 2020 with minimal revenues. Net losses reported during the company’s first three earnings call have totaled $196 million.
During the August earnings call, company officials warned investors to expect little improvement during the second half of the year. Significant revenues are not expected until SpaceShipTwo begins carrying paying passengers.