Is there a future for Virgin Galactic?

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If anyone was considering a potential career in Virgin’s Space Tourism sector, they may now be looking to rethink their career options. Richard Branson’s hopes of owning the first company to make commercial spaceflights a reality have had a huge setback due to the tragic crash in the Mojave Desert on October 31 that resulted in the death of one of the pilots. The response to such a terrible loss, not surprisingly, has been a negative one for Virgin, with around twenty already-paid passengers asking for refunds on their tickets.

Even without this disaster the project has been beset by problems ever since its inception in 2004. The development of Virgin Galactic has been ongoing now for 10 years, and has required over $680 million of investment from organisations outside of the Virgin Corporation, the only notable successes of which have been the few successful test flights that have taken place since early 2010. Virgin have also seen very little support from NASA. Considering the purpose of the project, many would believe such backing would be a necessity. However, NASA has instead decided to pledge support to what could be seen as a major rival to Virgin’s ambitions, the Sierra Nevada Corporation and their ‘Dreamchaser’ spacecraft.

On top of all this, Virgin Galactic still have the pressing issue of finances to cope with. Expenditure on their spacecraft ‘Spaceship 2’ has risen continually due to constant development and need for maintenance, all of which leads into how they hope to recoup these costs, where there are still issues to be found. Seats had initially been priced at $200,000; however, ever-increasing costs have caused this number to be increased to $250,000 a seat. Passengers are not only required to spend incredible amounts of cash, but also need to take a health check before flying in order to ensure they are capable of enduring the flight. All of this has led to many questioning why so much should be given for the sake of a 2.5 hour flight – a luxury novelty for those few who can afford it.

While it may seem a little early to suggest Virgin Galactic may possibly be a failed venture, it does create an interesting comparison to another form of luxury travel, one that had to be retired due to problems similar to those experienced by Virgin now: Concorde.  Even at the beginning, in the late 1960s, the development of the aircraft had caused serious economic loss to both Aérospatiale and BAC, the French and British companies involved in Concorde’s manufacturing, requiring government bailouts for both companies. Then there was the issue of ticket prices. A journey on Concorde could cost as much as five times as much as the same journey on a regular airliner. Public perception quickly began to sway against it as a privilege of the rich, rather than as something which the majority of air passengers could afford. Maintenance costs also rose consistently, especially in comparison to the more modern and efficient airliners that could be maintained far more easily as the years went on. However, by far the most crucial element in its retirement was the 2000 Paris air crash, which killed 113 people – a huge disaster for those involved and British Airways and Air France. Finally, in October 2003, all aircraft stopped flying.

So, two means of luxury travel, both incredibly expensive for passengers and owners alike, both with major public perception issues, and both with fatal crashes to their names. One has already been removed from service, will the other soon follow suit?