British billionaire Sir Richard Branson may have big dreams about the future of space tourism, but his potential launch partner in the U.K. is calling the idea ludicrous as the COVID-19 pandemic rattles the country’s economy and worsens inequality.
Branson’s Virgin Group has reportedly been looking to enlist Spaceport Cornwall, an airport in the southwestern town of Newquay, England, as the launch facility for Virgin Galactic, which plans to send tourists into suborbital space for 90-minute trips. Cornwall is already a launch partner for Branson’s other space venture, Virgin Orbit, which sends satellites into Earth’s orbit by attaching a small rocket to a modified Boeing 747 aircraft.
But the spaceport doesn’t seem interested. At a meeting this week, leaders of the Spaceport Cornwall Council called the idea of facilitating space tourism “an abundant waste of money” and “a wrong message” to local residents, according to the British local newspaper The Falmouth Packet.
“Cornwall Council will not be taking forward any space tourism operation from the airport,” said council leader Julian German.
Another council member, John Fitter, said, “If we were to entertain this, it would be quite ridiculous and send out the wrong message to those people in Cornwall who could possibly be suffering on below the minimum wage and in poverty and allow people who have got vast millions of pounds to spend to [go] up to space for half an hour and come back down again.”
Council member Geoff Brown added, “It was never an intention that we would do space tourism, it has always been about small satellites, low orbit launches monitoring climate change and that sort of thing.”
A Virgin Galactic spokesperson said the company isn’t in talks with Cornwall for a partnership.
Virgin Galactic offers a 90-minute round trip to the Kármán Line, which divides the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, for $250,000 per seat. The company said it has taken about 600 reservations and originally planned to roll out the service in 2021. But that timeline got pushed back after a key test flight failed in December 2020.
During its latest earnings call on Thursday, CEO Michael Colglazier said commercial service now is expected to begin in 2022. Last summer, Virgin Galactic unveiled the passenger cabin of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle. The company is set to introduce a new spacecraft, SpaceShip 3, on March 30. However, the next crewed test flight won’t take place until May, Colglazier said.
Virgin Galactic shares tumbled as much as 15 percent on the news Friday morning. In the last quarter of 2020, the space company reported zero revenue, but losses narrowed to 31 cents per share from 37 cents a year earlier. The company is spending around $16 million each quarter and had over $660 million in cash at the end of 2020.
Update: This story has been updated with Virgin Galactic’s comment in the 7th paragraph.