Virgin Galactic’s Top Priority Is to Fly Richard Branson to Space This Year

Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson demonstrates a spacewear system, designed for Virgin Galactic astronauts, at an event October 16, 2019 in Yonkers, New York. DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images

British billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic has yet to fly paying customers into space, but the level of interest in its $250,000-per-seat joyride to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere “keeps ticking up by a good chunk every month,” said CEO George Whitesides on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street” last week.

Seeing the growing demand, Whitesides said Virgin Galactic will re-open ticket sales later this year. The company halted ticket sales in 2014 after a pilot was killed during a test flight. By then, it had already sold 603 seats to aspiring astronauts including actor and venture capitalist Ashton Kutcher.

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Since the test failure, Virgin Galactic has updated its spacecraft and carried out two successful test flights with five people on board. The company said in a November SEC filing that it had received 3,557 “expressions of interest” in flight reservations following those tests.

Chamath Palihapitiya, chairman of Virgin Galactic’s holding company, Social Capital Hedosophia, has said he expects the space company to start commercial operation before in mid-2020 and be profitable by 2021.

The company’s top priority this year, Whitesides said, is to launch Branson into space—as 2020 marks his 70th birthday. “It’s gonna be a huge moment,” Whitesides said on CNBC.

At Morgan Stanley’s annual space summit last month, the CEO hinted that price increase might be on the way, too, given the high demand out there.

Virgin Galactic is currently the only publicly traded space company in the market. Its privately-owned rivals, notably Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, as well as NASA, have all teased their own space vacation packages. Virgin Galactic’s program is by far the most “affordable” and straightforward.

For a quarter million dollars, passengers will get a 90-minute ride in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vessel up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) above sea level, where they can enjoy a view of the curvature of Earth. That height is right above the Kármán Line dividing the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. Then, during the descent, passengers will experience several minutes of weightlessness and float around like a true NASA astronaut.

Correction: The article originally said that Virgin Galactic’s top priority was to fly Richard Branson to space by his 70th birthday in July. The piece has been updated to reflect that the company’s priority is to send Branson to space in his 70th year. 

Virgin Galactic’s Top Priority Is to Fly Richard Branson to Space This Year