Virgin making news in the Middle East

While Planetary Resources and SpaceX have been getting all the attention in the last couple of weeks given the former’s announcement of its asteroid mining plans and the latter’s upcoming test flight to the ISS, Virgin Galactic has been active as well. Those announcements, interestingly, have been concentrated in the United Arab Emirates, the home of one of the venture’s major investors and potential future operating location for the company.

On April 17, Virgin announced it had hired Steve Landeene as its chief advisor for “Spaceport Aub Dhabi”. Landeene will be responsible for “developing a roadmap”, as the company put it, for a future spaceport in the emirate, although with no specific timeframe for its development. Abu Dhabi is home to Aabar Investments, which took an approximately one-third stake in Virgin in 2009 and gained regional rights for Virgin Galactic operations. Landeene had been executive director of Spaceport America from 2007 to 2010, although he resigned in April 2010 under something of a cloud about a land deal he was involved with near the spaceport.

Last Thursday the Wall Street Journal (via Zawya Dow Jones) reported from Doha, Qatar, that SpaceShipTwo engine development was nearly complete. “Within a month or two, we expect we’ll have an engine we can put in the [spacecraft] vehicle,” Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides said. That would put them on a path towards beginning powered flight tests by late this year and beginning commercial service by the end of next year. (In a brief conversation Saturday in Washington, where he was on a panel at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, Whitesides told me that the motor that will be ready for SpaceShipTwo soon will be a “starter” motor for short-duration powered tests, not the full motor.)

In the article, Whitesides also revealed that the company has now sold 520 tickets, with $65 million in deposits to date. In March the company announced it had signed up its 500th customer, actor Ashton Kutcher.

And just this week Arabian Business reported that Sir Richard Branson thinks Virgin Galactic will soon generate $500 million a year in revenue. “We think the target market that we will be looking at soon will be the order of magnitude of about $500 million a year,” Branson told the publication in an interview.

That is an agressive goal: assuming it keeps ticket prices at $200,000 each, $500 million requires selling 2,500 tickets a year which, at six customers per flight, works out to nearly 420 flights a year, more than one a day. Even if they’re able to find additional revenue streams, such as flying experiments, that can increase their per-flight revenue, it will still require a high flight rate.

3 comments to Virgin making news in the Middle East

  • Jeff:

    I think you meant that they would start commercial service by the end of next year, not this year.

    If they only have a starter motor that will begin test flights by late this year, I don’t know how that puts them on a course for commercial flights by the end of 2013 with the full motor. I don’t understand that.

  • Jeff Foust

    Doug: Error corrected, thanks.

    Regarding the motors, it was always my understanding that they would start with short-duration powered flight tests and work their way up to full-duration powered tests into space, in much the same way SpaceShipOne did in late 2003 through mid-2004. So I’m not sure how that approach automatically keeps them from achieving that schedule, unless there’s a long delay in the transition to the full-duration motor.

  • J Hammond

    Thanks, as always, for the analysis Jeff.

    SS1 took 6 months from its first powered flight until it reached 100+ km. That was on a very aggressive schedule with only a handful of flights. I’d guess it’ll take SS2 a year to do the same, especially if RM2 isn’t fully verified (at least for full duration burns) when powered flight testing commences. I’d then expect several months of repeated flights to 100+ km before they have enough assurance to begin passenger operation. Of course they also need FAA approval and I can’t see that happening without significant flight test evidence. So I’d guess it’ll be 18 months from the first powered flight test until commercial operation.

    So end of 2013 still looks optiimstic to me, I’d say H1 2014 more likely.

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