Virgin Galactic is a company that aims to offer suborbital flights into space to paying customers in the next few years. It is run by Richard Branson, a British aerospace and music entrepreneur.
The start date for flights has been pushed back several times. Branson originally predicted that Virgin Galactic would be flying customers into space by 2007. Development headaches, a 2007 fatal explosion during a ground test and a tragic test-flight crash in October 2014 are some of the things that have delayed work.
Virgin plans to operate its flights out of the Spaceport America complex in New Mexico, but it has also signed an agreement to develop a spaceport in Abu Dhabi. The company has more than 700 customers who have made deposits for spaceflights. The biggest known name on the list is actor Ashton Kutcher, although rumor has it that actors Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Katy Perry have signed on as well. A few people reportedly backed out after the October 2014 crash.
Born from an X-Prize bid
Richard Branson has a portfolio of companies under the "Virgin" brand, including a music company and an airline. Virgin Galactic was registered as a company in 1999, three years after the Ansari X Prize was announced.
The X Prize was intended to award $10 million to the first non-government organization that flew people into space, using a reusable spacecraft, twice in a two-week span. Branson had been interested in spaceflight since the 1960s, and sponsored Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites' bid to get the prize.
That same year, Virgin pledged to bring ordinary people into space with Scaled Composites technology, for the reported low price of $200,000 per seat.
"We hope to create thousands of astronauts over the next few years and bring alive their dream of seeing the majestic beauty of our planet from above, the stars in all their glory and the amazing sensation of weightlessness," Branson said in September 2004. "The development will also allow every country in the world to have their own astronauts rather than the privileged few."
Building a base
A replica of the Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two sits at the Farnborough International Airshow, Hampshire, England. The image was taken July 9, 2012.
Credit: Mark Chivers
In July 2005, Branson and Rutan announced a joint venture between Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites to get spaceflights going. The SpaceShip Company would manufacture SpaceShipTwo, a new generation of spacecraft that built on SpaceShipOne's technology, as well as a launching aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo.
SpaceShipTwo would carry six passengers and two pilots into space, Virgin promised, with enough space "to allow for an out-of-seat zero gravity experience as well as plenty of large windows for the amazing views back to Earth."
With a spacecraft in hand, the next step was finding a launching area. In December 2005, the state of New Mexico officially offered Virgin Galactic a taxpayer-funded $225 million facility, SpacePort America, where the company could put its world headquarters and send flights into space.
Construction and development occupied Virgin's attention in the coming years. A fatal explosion at Scaled Composites occurred in July 2007 during a routine test, delaying development of the rocket engine as the company searched for the cause.
The next major flight milestone came in July 2008, when the company showed off the first WhiteKnightTwo air launch vehicle — "Eve" — to customers and the media. Eve began test flights in December that year.
'Longer and ... more difficult'
Developing the prototype spacecraft took quite a while longer. It wasn't until December 2009 that VSS Enterprise, the first SpaceShipTwo, was shown off to the world.
"I want to say that this program has been, at this point, harder than we thought it would be. It's taken longer and is more difficult," Rutan said at the launch event in New Mexico. "This is an enormous milestone today in unveiling the first commercial manned spacecraft. I look forward to moving into the test program."
Virgin Galactic's first crewed test flight came in July 2010, when VSS Enterprise spent more than six hours in the air. Meanwhile, the company was busily working to find paying customers for the upcoming spaceflights.
In addition to the suborbital joyrides, Virgin Galactic signed an agreement in 2011 with NASA to do research flights. The company also brokered a deal with the Southwest Research Institute to fly the institute's scientists and experiments into space.
Waiting for suborbit
Some customers pulled out following the lengthy delay in Virgin Galactic's first spaceflight, but most have said they understand that the company is trying to put safety first.
"Remember, this is pioneering technology," said passenger Jackie Maw in a 2011 email to Space.com. "We are all focused on the safety of the flights, and I daresay most of the future astronauts are happy to wait [until] Scaled and Virgin Galactic are 100 percent satisfied with the flights."
While testing continues on SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic has been working to diversify the business. In July 2012, Branson announced the company would offer commercial satellite launches beginning in 2016. He also announced the development of LauncherOne, an expendable liquid-fueled rocket.
"It will unlock new technologies and will help fast-track the potential of space as a positive force for powerful change," Branson said during the unveiling.
The first rocket-powered flight test of SpaceShipTwo took place in April 2013; another followed in September 2013, then another in January 2014. Each flight went well, with Enterprise zooming high in the sky faster than the speed of sound.
But tragedy struck during the fourth powered flight, on Oct. 31, 2014, when the vehicle broke apart, killing copilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold.
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the accident was caused by SpaceShipTwo's "feathering" re-entry system deploying too early, as a result of an error by Alsbury. The next version of SpaceShipTwo, which Virgin Galactic will unveil and name during a ceremony on Feb. 19, 2016, includes safeguards that will prevent this scenario from happening again, company representatives have said.
Activities after the crash
While Virgin has not committed to a flight date now for its first astronauts — the company had projected 2015 before the crash — Virgin has expressed commitment to continuing its test program, despite the tragedy.
In February 2015, a media report concerning CEO George Whitesides indicated that the company plans to resume testing later this year. Virgin is also building another spacecraft — it was two-thirds finished at the time of the report — and is still planning to use Spaceport America in New Mexico for its flights.
"I really think we're turning the corner," Whitesides told the Associated Press. "We've gone through one of the toughest things a company can go through and we're still standing, and now we're really moving forward with pace."
The article pointed out that New Mexico government taxpayers have spent nearly $250 million on the facility so far, but Whitesides added that the company is “still committed” to using the facility.
Separately, a blog post from Branson in early January 2015 said he briefly had doubts about continuing after the crash — but his commitment was renewed when he visited Mojave.
"In short — was Virgin Galactic, and everything it has stood for and dreamt of achieving, really worth it?” Branson wrote.
“I got a very firm answer to that question immediately when I landed in Mojave. From the designers, the builders, the engineers, the pilots and the whole community who passionately believed — and still believe — that truly opening space and making it accessible and safe is of vital importance to all our futures."