Virgin Galactic Delays SpaceShipTwo Flight Test Due to COVID-19

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

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic’s first suborbital flight in nearly two years will have to wait a bit longer due to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.

The company has postponed a powered flight test of SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity that had been scheduled to take place between Nov. 19-23 from Spaceport America after New Mexico reenacted its shelter in place order as the rising number coronavirus cases have begun to overwhelm hospitals.

‘With the health and safety of our team members in mind, and in accordance with the recent direction from the New Mexico Department of Health, we will be minimizing our New Mexico operations to the greatest degree possible,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement.

“While these new restrictions cause us to adjust our flight schedule, we take this pause in stride and will be prepared to resume our pre-flight procedures and announce a new test flight window as soon as we can. Our team members at Virgin Galactic, our Future Astronauts, and our fans around the world remain incredibly excited for our upcoming spaceflight,” Colglazier added.

VSS Unity conducted suborbital flights on Dec. 13, 2018 and Feb. 22, 2019 from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The four-passenger space plane has made two glide flights from Spaceport America since the vehicle was relocated there earlier this year.

Virgin Galactic is planning to conduct three additional suborbital tests in the coming months to complete SpaceShipTwo’s flight test program. The first test was scheduled for as early as Thursday, the other two for the first quarter of 2021. Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson is scheduled to be on the final flight test.

Virgin Galactic plans to being flying passengers on suborbital tourism flights after it completes the flight test program. Ticket holders have paid $200,000 or $250,000 for their tickets. (The company raised prices in 2013 after the program’s first powered flight test.)

Virgin Galactic’s stock (SPCE) has fallen more than 9.6% on the news. It’s now trading at $20.14, down from its previous close of $22.29.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state health officials announced the two-week shelter in place order on Friday. The order will remain in place for Nov. 16-19.

“New Mexicans are instructed to stay at home except for only those trips that are essential to health, safety and welfare – such as for food and water, emergency medical care, to obtain a flu shot or to obtain a test for COVID-19,” the New Mexico Department of Health said in a press release.

“Essential businesses – such as grocery stores, pharmacies, shelters, child care facilities, gas stations, infrastructure operations and others – must minimize operations and in-person staffing to the greatest extent possible but may remain open for limited essential in-person activities,” the announcement said.

Officials said the rise in cases has begun to overwhelm hospitals in the state.

The worsening state of emergency throughout New Mexico necessitates severe public health restrictions as the state records unsustainable rates of new infections of COVID-19 and hospitals throughout the state approach or exceed capacity for bed availability and staffing resources. New Mexico’s rolling 7-day average of new COVID-19 cases is 1,012, nearly 10 times greater than the state’s target for a safe “reopening” process.

The total COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state have risen at least 214 percent over the most recent four weeks. The state has recorded 182 COVID-19 deaths over the past two weeks, a record over the course of the pandemic, and a 143 percent increase over the prior two-week period.