The chief executive of Virgin Galactic laid out a goal of taking tourists to the edge of space at a rate of more than one flight a day, as the private space company looks to capitalise on founder Sir Richard Branson's successful test flight at the weekend.
However, Michael Colglazier, who took the helm at Virgin Galactic a year ago, did not spell out a timetable for the company to scale up its commercial operations and admitted it faced big hurdles in expanding in the short term. "I think for a while this is going to be a very supply-constrained business," he said.
Branson's test flight on Sunday came nine days ahead of Jeff Bezos's first flight aboard a rocket from his private space company, Blue Origin. The head start could give Virgin Galactic valuable extra publicity as it attempts to build the first commercial space tourism business, with two more tests this year before it carries paying passengers in 2022.
Speaking in an interview with the Financial Times, Colglazier said the company planned to replace its current prototype spaceship with two new craft next year that are designed to be maintained more easily, leading to quicker turnrounds between flights. It was also plotting how to jump to larger-scale production of a future version of the spaceship that will be engineered with ease of manufacturing in mind, he added.
"At every spaceport we're going to target about 400 flights a year," Colglazier said. "I'm expecting high single-digit numbers to low double-digit numbers of spaceships [at each site] in order to kind of reach numbers like that."
Virgin Galactic said on Monday that it planned to raise up to US$500m by selling new shares to fund the development of its spaceship fleet and for other corporate purposes. The news sent the stock down more than 10 per cent in morning trading.
Following the successful test this weekend, the company would also look to expand its operations at its first base in New Mexico and "find other spaceports around the world and start to take this to more places," Colglazier said.
However, with room for only four passengers on each flight, Virgin Galactic is facing a serious shortage of seats in the short term. More than 600 people have put down an average of US$130,000 (NZ$186,000) each for the chance to fly on one of its spacecraft, while another 1,000 have paid US$1,000 deposits.
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Branson had been due to reach space later this summer but brought forward his flight plans last month just days after Bezos announced the date of his own trip to space. Colglazier denied that Branson had been in a race to beat Bezos. Instead, he said, Branson had changed his plans because there was no longer a need for a second flight to test the company's customer experience — the official role that he had been assigned in the tests.
Referring to the huge publicity stirred up by the quick-fire announcements that had appeared to pit Branson and Bezos against each other, he said: "The juiciest story seemed to be a billionaire space race. It wasn't."
- Financial Times