Virgin’s delays hardly surprising (and not necessarily as long as WSJ claims)

Here are the first two paragraphs of a Wall Street Journal article about Virgin Galactic, published last night:

Sir Richard Branson’s space-tourism company won’t start passenger flights for at least two more years and operations will ramp up significantly more slowly than previously anticipated, according to its chief pilot.

In an interview, David Mackay said Virgin Galactic, the venture controlled by the British billionaire, likely won’t begin commercial flights until 2013.

First of all, the two paragraphs are at least potentially contradictory. Starting commercial flights in 2013 doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t start “for at least two more years”, given it’s October 2011: it’s entirely possible that they could start in early 2013, which would imply a delay of a little over one year, not at least two years. (They could, of course, start in late 2013, which would be closer to two years, but Mackay doesn’t provide a specific enough date to make the conclusion in the article’s lede.)

The second issue is that this delay should not be considered a surprise. Pronouncements in recent weeks and months indicated that commercial service would start, at best, in late 2012, with 2013 as a more likely date. For example, Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides said at the beginning of this month that the company would “try to get to some definition of space by the end of next year”, implying that they would still be performing test flights at the end of 2012.

What is true is that Virgin’s announced date for the beginning of commercial service has been a moving target, one that has been regularly moving to the right. When Virgin’s partnership with Scaled Composites was announced on the eve of Scaled’s X PRIZE-winning flights in September 2004, Virgin was expected to begin commercial flight by2007, a date that has gradually slipped to now 2013. That delay likely has several reasons, including the decision to develop a larger SpaceShipTwo as opposed to a version of the original SpaceShipOne, the July 2007 engine test accident in Mojave that killed three Scaled employees, and usual development delays. (Funding, presumably, has been less of an issue, given Virgin’s resources and outside investment from Aabar.) However, should those schedule slips continue, there will be new questions about Virgin’s ability to follow through on its commercial suborbital plans, and those delays create new opportunities for competitors, like XCOR Aerospace, to close the gap and even begin flights before Virgin.

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