Things Are Looking Up for Richard Branson: Virgin Galactic Takes Flight

800+ customers are already in line to enjoy a view of Earth from space.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity
The Virgin Galactic VSS Unity spaceplane carrying Richard Branson returns to Earth at Spaceport America, near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico on July 11, 2021. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Virgin Galactic (SPCE), the space tourism company owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, will officially fly paying customers to space this month after years of anticipation and delay. The company said yesterday (June 15) its first commercial flight will take off sometime between June 27 and June 30. It will also mark the two-year anniversary of Branson flying to space himself in a Virgin Galactic test flight.

The announcement sent Virgin Galactic’s share price up 40 percent in yesterday’s after-hour trading to its highest level in a month, paring some of the severe losses last year.

Virgin Galactic provides a 90-minute round-trip flight to suborbital space, or about 55 miles in the sky, using a spaceplane called VSS Unity. The main appeal of the flight is that passengers can enjoy a view of Earth from space at the top of the plane’s climb and experience a few minutes of weightlessness on its way back down.

Virgin Galactic said more than 800 customers have put down a deposit and are on the waitlist. Most of them will likely wait for several years, given the company’s current flight pace. Virgin Galactic said its first flight this month will be a scientific research mission, carrying three crew members from the Italian Air Force and Italy’s National Research Council to conduct microgravity research in suborbital space.

A second commercial flight is scheduled for early August. After that, Virgin Galactic expects to operate at least one flight per month. Each VSS Unity spaceplane can carry up to four passengers and two pilots, meaning it will take about 200 flights before the waitlist clears up. Virgin Galactic ultimately aims to launch 400 flights per year, averaging more than one flight a day.

Branson has had a few difficult years as the Covid-19 pandemic weighed on his tourism empire. In an interview with the BBC in May, the Virgin Group chairman said he personally lost around $2 billion during the pandemic as lockdowns hit his airline and leisure businesses.

“There was a time when I thought we were going to lose everything,” he told BBC.

Also in May,┬áVirgin Galactic’s sister company, Virgin Orbit, a company that launches satellites using spaceplanes, ceased operation after running out of cash. Virgin Galactic still has a long way to go to reclaim its market value. Its stock price is down more than 90 percent from its peak in June 2021.

Things Are Looking Up for Richard Branson: Virgin Galactic Takes Flight