The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be: The Triumph and Failure of the Ansari X Prize

WhiteKnight with SpaceShipOne on the taxiway prior to the first commercial spaceflight. The authori is at right holding up the video camera. (Credit: John Criswick)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Sixteen years ago today, I awoke very early and joined about 25,000 people at a newly-designated spaceport in the Mojave Desert to watch history in the making.

On that bright sunny June 21, Mike Melvill became the first person to fly to space on a privately-built vehicle by piloting SpaceShipOne to just above the Karman line at 100 km.

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The Year of the Four Spaceships: A Progress Report

The Expedition 63 crew welcomes Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station. (Credits: NASA / Bill Stafford)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Back in February, I went out on a limb and predicted that 2020 could be the Year of the Four Spaceships, with SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic and reaching major milestones in human spaceflight. (See 2020: Four Spaceships & the End of America’s Cosmic Groundhog Day)

With nearly half the year over, I thought it would be a good time to review the companies’ progress toward those milestones.

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Branson Looks to Unprofitable Virgin Galactic to Help Save Reeling Empire

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

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

For nearly 16 years, Richard Branson’s obsession with space travel has been massive money pit for the billionaire’s Virgin Group. Branson’s conglomerate has poured more than $1 billion into Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company without launching a single tourist or satellite into space while generating minuscule revenues and not a single penny of profit.

And yet, by the strange workings of modern finances, this money losing effort will be helping to prop up the Virgin Group, which has been laid low financially by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

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Virgin Orbit Ventilators Granted Emergency Use Authorization

Bridge ventilator (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

LONG BEACH, Calif., April 22, 2020 (Virgin Orbit PR) Virgin Orbit, Sir Richard Branson’s responsive satellite launch company, announced today that regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have granted an Emergency Use Authorization for the immediate delivery and use of a new “bridge” ventilator designed and built by the aerospace firm. With that authorization now in place, Virgin Orbit expects to begin delivering ventilators to hospitals within the next few days.

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Virgin Orbit Conducts Cryogenic Flight Test with Fueled LauncherOne Booster

Cosmic Girl performs a pitch up maneuver during a flight test on April 12, 2020. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Orbit completed a cryogenic captive carry flight test with a fueled LauncherOne rocket aboard for the first time, clearing the last hurdle before Richard Branson’s company can conduct the maiden flight of the air-launched booster.

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Virgin Galactic Stock Goes Up Again (After Going Way Down)

Sir Richard Branson and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in front of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo during the Spaceport America runway dedication ceremony in October 2010. The spaceport still awaits its first suborbital flight. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic’s wild roller coaster ride on Wall Street continued over the past week as Richard Branson’s spaceline marked five months as a publicly traded company and 13 months since the last launch of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle.

Since debuting on the New York Stock Exchange at $12 last Oct. 28, the stock soared to a high of $42.49 on Feb. 20 before sinking to $10.49 on March 19. Over the past week, the stock has risen again; it reached $14.68 in after-hours trading on Monday.

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Video: Virgin Orbit Cosmic Girl Taxi Test with LauncherOne Attached

Video Caption: Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl 747 conducted a slow-speed taxi test down the runway with a fueled LauncherOne under its wing at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on March 5, 2020. The test covered about 2 miles on runway 12-30.

The taxi test was a precursor to a flight test with a fueled booster for Sir Richard Branson’s launch company. LauncherOne is designed to orbit small satellites after being dropped from the modified Boeing airliner. Virgin Orbit plans to conduct a flight test of the booster for later this year.

Soaring Investment in Commercial Space Dominated by Handful of Companies

Credit: Bryce Space and Technology

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Investment in commercial space companies soared to $5.7 billion in 2019 from $3.5 billion the year before, but the bulk of the funding went to a handful of companies most of which are run by billionaires, according to a new report from Bryce Space and Technology.

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Blast From the Past: Suborbital Human Spaceflights by March 2009

March 2007

Virgin Galactic Founder predicts SpaceShipTwo would be ready to fly in 12 months. A year after that — March 2009 — the vehicle would begin commercial suborbital space flights.

The reality is that in 2007 they didn’t have an engine capable of firing for the one minute needed to send SpaceShipTwo above 50 miles. They weren’t even close to having one. It would take another 7.5 years to develop one they would even risk firing for more than 20 seconds in flight.

SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise was destroyed on Oct. 31, 2014 during the flight during which they were supposed to test that engine. That accident set the program back by another five years.

Virgin Galactic Chairman Declares We’re Not a Bubble Stock as Shares Slide

Chamath Palihapitiya (Credit: SCH)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic Chairman Chamath Palihapitiya was on a financial news network yesterday denying the stock was a bubble, a claim that hasn’t aged well in the short term.

With shares soaring to a high of $41.55 only a week ago, they are hovering at around $23 as I writing this story. The shares were offered at $12 when Virgin Galactic went public last Oct. 28 and rose sharply in recent weeks.

The shares slid after Virgin Galactic reported a larger than expected loss for the fourth quarter 2019 and hinted at delays in the start of commercial suborbital flights, which were to have started in June. Analysts have downgraded the stock based on the earnings report.

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Virgin Galactic: High Losses, Minimal Revenues & A lot of “Registrations of Interest”

A view from inside the cockpit. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Richard Branson’s now publicly traded Virgin Galactic space tourism company had its first quarterly and full year earnings call on Tuesday. You can read the press release here. Below are the key takeaways.

Burning cash: Net losses were nearly $72.8 million for the fourth quarter and $210.9 million for 2019. Net losses for 2018 and 2019 totaled $349.1 million. Total expenditures since 2004 have exceeded $1 billion.

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Video: Virgin Galactic Shares Soar

Video Caption: CNBC’s space reporter Michael Sheetz and FinTech reporter Kate Rooney break down why Virgin Galactic’s stock has taken off with the “Power Lunch” team.

Virgin Galactic’s rally began two months ago but trading in the speculative space company has recently accelerated in a way that tops even the momentum behind Tesla.

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Virgin Galactic Begins End Game as SpaceShipTwo Unity Relocated to New Mexico

SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity arrives at Spaceport America aboard WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Four years after it was first rolled out, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity left the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on Thursday for its new home at in New Mexico, where it will undergo final flight testing and preparation for commercial suborbital space flights.

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2020: Four Spaceships & the End of America’s Cosmic Groundhog Day

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The clock struck midnight on Jan. 1 amid raucous celebrations around the world. The arrival of a new year and decade merely confirmed what had been clear for months: 2019 was not the breakthrough year for getting humans off the planet.

Neither Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin followed through on long-standing promises to fly paying passengers on suborbital joyrides. An era of commercial space tourism that seemed so close that October day in 2004 when Brian Binnie guided SpaceShipOne to a landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port quietly slipped into yet another year.

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