The one-piece blue jumpsuits have been designed for its customers by Under Armour, and Virgin Galactic’s new chairman recently said the company is within “spitting distance” of beginning to fly the 600 or so people who have put down as much as $250,000 for joyrides to the edge of space and back.
On Tuesday, the company reached another milestone, showing off the inside of the spacecraft it calls SpaceShipTwo, a sleek crew cabin for six passengers and two pilots, outfitted with custom seats, plenty of windows and 16 cameras to record all manner of weightless somersaults for the ultimate social media boasting.
“This cabin has been designed specifically to allow thousands of people like you and me to achieve the dream of spaceflight safely — and that is incredibly exciting,” Branson said in a statement.
Since Branson founded the company in 2004, Virgin Galactic has carried on through a series of delays and setbacks, including a fatal accident in 2014 that killed a pilot. But now, after successfully flying people to space twice, it says it is poised to finally claim the mantle of “the world’s first commercial spaceline.”
After years of design and testing the engineering and technology behind a spaceplane that would travel Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, Virgin Galactic now needs to show its investors, customers and the public at large that Branson’s quixotic dream can indeed become a truly profitable venture, capable of reliably flying passengers to space.
Toward that end, it has taken some significant steps recently, including its announcement a year ago that it would merge with Social Capital Hedosophia, a New York investment firm, and go public.
Virgin Galactic said the move would give it the capital it needs to expand its fleet of spaceships and move into markets around the globe. Late last year, it also announced that Boeing would invest $20 million in the company to help develop technologies that would allow for high-speed transportation to ferry passengers across the globe faster than the speed of sound and possibly through space.
While Virgin has been working toward beginning commercial operations, it has posted a net loss of $133 million over the past two quarters. But as of the end of March it had cash and equivalents of $419 million, some 600 “future astronauts,” representing $80 million in revenue. Another 400 potential customers have put down $1,000 in refundable deposits, giving them the first chance of buying tickets when they go back on sale.
Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeff Bezos, also plans to fly paying customers on suborbital flights to the edge of space. While its reusable New Shepard rocket has reached space numerous times, the company has yet to fly humans, and it has not announced ticket prices. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Earlier this month, Virgin Galactic made another dramatic move when it announced that Michael Colglazier would become CEO, replacing George Whitesides, who has spent a decade at the company as it grew from 30 employees to more than 900 and becomes Chief Space Officer, perhaps the most original title in corporate America. He will focus on developing new spaceflight technologies.
Colglazier comes to Virgin Galactic after 30 years at Disney, where he served as president and manager of Disney Parks International and as president of the Disneyland Resort.
“Disney and Virgin share a common commitment to world-class service, incredible innovational delivering unique, unforgettable experiences,” he said in a recent call with analysts.
But Space Mountain this is not.
Virgin’s goal is to open up space to the masses, realizing Branson’s goal of turning ordinary people, or at least those able to afford the steep ticket price, into astronauts, championing the transformative experience of seeing the Earth from a distance.
Now that it is getting closer to achieving those first flights — Branson has said he hopes to fly before the end of the year — it showed off the interior of its crew cabin Tuesday.
The experience begins at Spaceport America, where passengers will board the spaceship. Unlike traditional rockets that launch vertically, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is “air launched.” It is tethered to the belly of a twin-fuselage airplane that escorts it to an altitude of about 45,000 feet. There, it releases the spaceship, which fires its rocket motor, and shoots almost straight up to an altitude of more than 50 miles. It then falls back to Earth and glides to the runway like an airplane.
Inside the cabin, there are six passenger seats, custom-fitted to their bodies, each with two dedicated windows for star and Earth gazing. Virgin Galactic had wanted to unveil the cabin with a big ceremony, inviting VIPs, the media, customers and investors. But because of the coronavirus, it developed a presentation on virtual reality that allows users to visit the runway at Spaceport America, meet Virgin Galactic’s pilots, walk around inside the spacecraft and even blast off to space.
The cabin has mood lighting and handholds around the windows to help passengers when they reach space, unbuckle their seat belts and experience a few minutes of weightlessness. At the end of the cabin, there is even a giant mirror that the company says “allows astronauts to view themselves weightless while illuminated by the natural brightness of the Earth.” Each seatback has a digital screen that displays flight data.
“It was really designed with a lot of care to keep the focus on planet Earth and weightlessness,” Whitesides said in an interview. “It doesn’t have a lot of garish designs on the walls or anything like that. It was all very conscious design decisions to make sure that the focus of attention was the windows, and really what is behind the windows.”
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