FastFacts: Public-Sector Financial Support for Richard Branson’s Space Companies

Four big thumbs up from Richard Branson and then New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson at the Spaceport America runway dedication in 2010. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The nonbinding memorandum of understanding involving $1 billion in investment from Saudi Arabia is Richard Branson’s latest success in obtaining financial support from governments for his Virgin Group’s space companies.

The table below shows funding invested directly into the group’s space ventures and indirectly for infrastructure.

VIRGIN GROUP SPACE COMPANIES — DIRECT & INDIRECT GOVERNMENT INVESTMENT
YEARGOVERNMENT
AMOUNT (MILLIONS)
PURPOSE
2006New Mexico~$225 Custom built spaceport named Spaceport America constructed on 18,000 acres of land — Virgin Galactic signed 20 year lease to serve as anchor tenant
2009Abu Dhabi $280Government-owned sovereign wealth fund Aabar Investments obtained 31.6 percent share of Virgin Galactic — plans for a spaceport where SpaceShipTwo would fly in Dubai — future commitment of $100 million more when Virgin Galactic developed viable plan for small-satellite booster (LauncherOne)
2011 Abu Dhabi $110Aabar Investments increased share of Virgin Galactic to 37.6 percent
2017Saudi Arabia$1,000Under non-binding MOU, government-run Public Investment Fund (PIC) would obtain undisclosed share of three Virgin Group space companies: Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company — Virgin Group  to maintain majority ownership
 TOTAL: $1,615
 Future Saudi Arabia $480PIC has an option to invest nearly a half-billion more in Virgin Group space services
 TOTAL:$2,095

Virgin Group, Saudi Arabia Sign MOU for $1 Billion Space Investment

LauncherOne ignites after being released from Cosmic Girl 747. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, October 26, 2017 — The Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia and Virgin Group (Virgin), have signed a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for a partnership under which PIF intends to invest approximately $1 billion into Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company and Virgin Orbit, with an option for $480 million of future additional investment in space services.

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Hart Elevated to CEO of Virgin Orbit

LONG BEACH, Calif. (Virgin Orbit PR) — Virgin Group and Aabar are pleased to announce the appointment of Dan Hart as CEO of Virgin Orbit.

Dan joined the organization in March as President after a distinguished 34 years at Boeing, where he was responsible for all of the company’s satellite programs for the US government and several allied countries.

His appointment is the final step in the planned establishment of Virgin Orbit as an independent space access company dedicated to serving the small satellite market.
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Feds: Missing Money Funded Wolf of Wall Street Film

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. (Credit: Red Granite Pictures)
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. (Credit: Red Granite Pictures)

The scandal engulfing Aabar Investments just keeps getting stranger and stranger.

The U.S. Justice Department has charged that some of the funds allegedly stolen from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB ended up funding The Wolf of Wall Street, a hit movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as corrupt Wall Street stock broker Jordan Belfort.
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Aabar Watch: Scandal Envelops Virgin Galactic’s Abu Dhabi Partner

Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic pilots, staffers and investors. To his right is Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, CEO of Aabar, which made a $280 million in Virgin Galactic.
Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic pilots, staffers and investors. To his right is Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, CEO of Aabar, during the Oshkosh airshow in 2009. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

It’s been quite a while since we’ve checked in with our friends over at Aabar Investments, the Abu Dhabi-owned sovereign wealth fund that invested $390 million into Virgin Galactic in exchange for a 37.6-percent share of Sir Richard Branson’s space line.

And boy, do I wish we had checked in sooner. There’s been some real serious [expletive deleted] going down with that investment with that fund over the past year. Real serious you know what.

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Virgin Galactic Says Bookings on SpaceShipTwo Have Recovered

George Whitesides
George Whitesides

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides was in Abu Dhabi this week for a space conference, where he gave an update on the company’s progress since the October 2014 that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo and killed pilot Mike Alsbury.

About 25 of 700 fee-paying clients withdrew from the program after the crash in the Mojave Desert in California caused it to be put on hold just months before the first commercial flight, Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Officer George Whitesides said Tuesday in Abu Dhabi.

“We had a little dip right after the accident, but honestly we’re almost all the way back now,” Whitesides said at a conference organized by the International Civil Aviation Organization and United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. “It’s looking very good. There’s a global desire to experience space.”

Virgin Galactic said it had “more than 700 Future Astronauts” signed up as of April 2014. In media appearances in the months before the accident, Branson put the number of tickets sold at or close to 800.

Whitesides also said that Virgin Galactic’s partner, Aabar Investments, might increase its stake in the company.

When asked whether Aabar is planning to increase or decrease their stake in the company, he said they had meetings with their representatives and said the responses had been positive.

In 2009, Aabar paid $280 million for a 31.8 percent stake in Virgin Galactic. The government-owned sovereign wealth fund upped its stake to 37.8 percent with an additional investment of $110 million in 2011.

Aabar Investments Refinancing $2.5 Billion Loan

aabar_logoReuters reports that Virgin Galactic partner Aabar Investments is trying to borrow $2.5 billion to refinance a loan that is due in April.

Aabar has a chequered past, having borrowed aggressively to build up its holdings around the turn of the decade but then suffering heavy losses as investments turned sour. For example, IPIC’s 2011 net profit was all but wiped out due to losses worth $3.42 billion by Aabar’s holdings in German carmaker Daimler and UniCredit.

It has since kept a lower profile as it seeks to repair its reputation within Abu Dhabi and manage its existing commitments….

The 2013 loan was split between tranches lasting three and five years, which were each denominated in dollars, UAE dirhams and euros. Among the banks to have backed the loan were Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, HSBC, JP Morgan and National Bank of Abu Dhabi, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Read the full story.

 

Virgin Galactic Hires New Pilot

Kelly Latimer
Kelly Latimer

MOJAVE, Calif., November 9, 2015 (Virgin Galactic PR) – Virgin Galactic, the privately funded space company owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments PJS, is pleased to announce the appointment of its newest pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Kelly Latimer, US Air Force, Ret. A former combat veteran and retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, Latimer joins Virgin Galactic with extensive experience with heavy aircraft and as an experimental test pilot for NASA, Boeing, and the US Air Force.

Latimer was the first female research test pilot hired by NASA’s Dryden (now Armstrong) Flight Research Center, where she conducted experimental flight test and test support on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) 747SP, T-38, C-17, 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, BE200 and T-34 for various NASA research projects.

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SpaceShipTwo’s PF-04: A High-Risk Flight

Mike Alsbury
Mike Alsbury

Part 1 in a Series

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Mike Alsbury’s day began with a 3 a.m. wake up at his home in Tehachapi, Calif. He showered, dressed and ate a breakfast that likely consisted of an apple and a granola bar.

Alsbury rarely awoke at so early; but this Oct. 31 was a flight test day. That meant a lot of people were getting up early for the latest milestone in the Tier 1B program. At least that’s what they called it at Alsbury’s employer, Scaled Composites. The rest of the world knew it as WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo – the foundation of Sir Richard Branson’s suborbital space tourism program. Scaled built and tested the vehicles for the British billionaire’s spaceline, Virgin Galactic.

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LauncherOne’s Long & Winding Road to Orbit: A Timeline

LauncherOne stage separation. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
LauncherOne stage separation. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

If the current schedule holds, Virgin Galactic’s revamped LauncherOne program will enter commercial service sometime in 2018 after roughly a decade of development. During that period, the program has been redefined several times, lost two of the key people hired to lead it, and changed its launch platform from WhiteKnightTwo to a jumbo jet. The estimates for the initial flight tests also have slipped by about  four years from 2013 to 2017.

Below is a timeline of the program’s major events, milestones, announcements, hires and departures, and other things. Feel free to let me know if I’ve missed anything significant.

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Mojave Journal: The Ansari X Prize’s Awkward Family Reunion

Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary panel discussion on Oct. 4, 2014.
Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary panel discussion on Oct. 4, 2014.

One Year Ago, the Ansari X Prize Turned 10
It Was an Uncomfortable Birthday

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The planes kept coming and coming. One after another, they swooped out of a blue desert sky and touched down on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port. By mid-morning there were at least a dozen private jets stretched along the flight line running east from the Voyager restaurant toward the control tower. And even more were on their way.

And to what did Mojave owe this ostentatious display of wealth by the 1 percenters? They had come to the sun-splashed spaceport last Oct. 4 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Ansari X Prize. A decade earlier, Burt Rutan and his Paul Allen-funded team had won $10 million for sending the first privately-built manned vehicle into space twice within a two-week period.

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Virgin Galactic Focused on Larger Satellite Launch Vehicle

Artist's conception of WhiteKnightTwo with LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Artist’s conception of WhiteKnightTwo with LauncherOne (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic is developing a rocket more powerful than LauncherOne to fulfill a recent order for 39 launches from its global satellite Internet partner OneWeb, according to sources familiar with the program.

LauncherTwo will use Virgin Galactic’s largest liquid fuel engine, NewtonThree, in its first stage, according to sources that insisted upon anonymity. A new engine, NewtonFour, will be developed for the second stage.

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Flashback: Virgin Galactic Announces Switch From Rubber to Nylon Engine

RocketMotorTwo firing. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
RocketMotorTwo firing. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Parabolic Arc Flashback: One year ago, Virgin Galactic announced it changing SpaceShipTwo’s propulsion system from a rubber hybrid to a nylon hybrid engine due to demonstrated better performance. The news was announced on a Friday at the start of long holiday weekends in the U.S. and Britain, a perfect time to dump news when neither reporters nor the public are paying much attention. Sierra Nevada, by the way, was blindsided that their rubber engine was being dropped and their lucrative agreement was going away.

Today, the nylon engine decision is being re-evaluated due to performance. The company recently revealed it is testing both hybid engines again, and it might go back to using the rubber one. That means the company still doesn’t know how its going to power its spacecraft despite being nearly 11 years into the SpaceShipTwo program. That explains why it is taking as long as it is.

MOJAVE, Calif., May 23, 2014 (Virgin Galactic PR) – Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline which is owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s aabar Investments PJS, has selected a polyamide-based fuel grain to power its hybrid rocket motor for the remainder of the test flight program and start of commercial operations. This decision follows numerous ground test firings and is supported by data collected over an extensive development program.

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Aabar Investments Non-Committal on Continuing Virgin Galactic Investment

SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

An update on Abu Dhabi’s investment in Virgin Galactic.

The Abu Dhabi fund which owns a major stake in Virgin Galactic will wait for results of the probe into last week’s fatal crash before deciding on its commitment to the project, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

The backing of deep-pocketed Aabar Investments, run by the Abu Dhabi government, may be crucial to Virgin Galactic as it struggles to recover from the accident, which killed one test pilot and left another seriously injured. “As an investor, Aabar is concerned of course. It is a challenge – nothing can be decided until investigations are over,” the source said, declining to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. “For now, it is a wait-and-watch situation.”

Asked if Aabar was still committed to Virgin Galactic, the source said only: “There is time to make an assessment of the future strategy.”

The company invested $390 million in Virgin Galactic and owns 37.8 percent of the company.

Prior to the accident, sources told Parabolic Arc that Virgin Galactic was under serious pressure to fly to space or Aabar would not continue investing in the company.

It’s not entirely clear what waiting “for the results of the probe” means. If they wait for the results of the NTSB investigation, that could be an entire year. Of course, they could make a decision earlier if word comes back before the probe is complete as to the root cause of the accident. Virgin is also working on a recovery plan and hopes to begin flight tests of a second SpaceShipTwo vehicle by summer 2015.

Grey Goose Becomes Official Vodka Supplier to Virgin Galactic

Richard Branson, GREY GOOSE creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault, and George Whitesides toast to a new partnership. (Credit: Grey Goose)     Richard Branson, Grey Goose creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault, and George Whitesides toast to a new partnership. (Credit: Grey Goose)
Richard Branson, Grey Goose creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault, and George Whitesides toast to a new partnership. (Credit: Grey Goose)

HAMILTON, Bermuda, September 23, 2014 (Grey Goose/Virgin Galactic PR) — GREY GOOSE®, the world’s leading super premium vodka, announces today its official partnership with Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial passenger flight into space. Formed from a shared philosophy that extraordinary achievement comes from acting on your beliefs, the partnership was revealed this evening by Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, Global Category Director Premium White Spirits Ben Farlow and GREY GOOSE creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault, at the Rose Space Center and Planetarium in New York.

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