Virgin Galactic has a launch date for its first paying space tourists

This summer, Virgin Galactic will finally start flying paying customers to the edge of space in the company’s rocket-powered plane, SpaceShipTwo.

If Galactic 01 soars to space’s edge as anticipated, it will have been a long time coming-nearly 20 years.

Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder Richard Branson first announced his entry into the space tourism industry in 2004, with a goal of flying customers in 2007.

Although Branson flew aboard SpaceShip Two in July 2021, Virgin Galactic hasn’t yet had a commercial flight.

It may be too little too late to make Virgin Galactic a sustainable player of the space tourism game.

“I do not have high hopes for Virgin Galactic’s long-term stability due to their excruciatingly slow pace to become operational, their high company expenses, and their mixed safety track record,” says Laura Forczyk, a space industry analyst and founder of the consultancy company Astralytical.

Like SpaceShipOne, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two is a rocket-propelled space plane.

Carried aloft by a larger aircraft dubbed WhiteKnightTwo, the space plane detaches at 49,000 feet altitude, the rocket ignites and powers the space plane to just more than 50 miles altitude, considered the threshold of outer space by the US government.

SpaceShip Two then glides back to Earth, using an innovative “Feathering” system that rotates the space plane’s twin tail wings upward and toward the plane’s front, using aerodynamic drag to slow the craft during reentry.

By banking on that innovative technology as the key to unlocking the space tourism market, Virgin Galactic may have put itself at a major disadvantage.

“Traditional rockets have a long history of launching uncrewed as well as crewed spaceflight. Space planes do not have that history.”

Unlike traditional rockets, space planes cannot be tested without a human crew on board, Forczyk points out, increasing the risk during development.

That may have slowed Virgin Galactic down compared to competitors such as Blue Origin, which uses traditional rockets and space capsules for tourism.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos reached space atop his company’s New Shephard rocket in 2021-the same month as Branson’s space plane flight-and has since gone on to fly dozens of paying customers.

Having stumbled out of the starting blocks, is it possible for Virgin Galactic to catch up in the space tourism race? Its tasks are twofold.

Virgin Galactic is in many ways a space company built for 2004-the pre-iPhone era-not 2023.

It can fly space tourists and researchers, but can’t carry cargo offworld.