Virgin Galactic may beat SpaceX and Blue Origin in one crucial category

SpaceX and Blue Origin garner a lot of press with their rockets, but Virgin Galactic may be the mass-market choice.
Brad Bergan
Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity in flight.Virgin Galactic / YouTube

Virgin Galactic is taking its space tourism ambitions to the next level, announcing that 1,000 tickets for trips aboard its space-touching aircraft were for sale on Wednesday. 

The price point for the brief trips to the edge of space — $450,000 each — may push the Richard Branson-owned company, which can be seen as the third-place firm behind SpaceX and Blue Origin when it comes to hype into the pole position in the private space race. 

Before prospective astronauts claim their ticket to the threshold between us and the great beyond, they will have to make a $150,000 deposit, paying the remaining $300,000 before stepping aboard. The six-figure sum isn't exactly pocket change, but it's the cheapest seat beyond the atmosphere. (SpaceX is sending four private citizens to the ISS on March 30 for a ten-day stay in a more substantial space affair. The cost for each is reportedly $55-million in the private mission.)

Conversely, the Virgin Galactic trip lasts 90 minutes and features "several minutes of out-of-seat weightlessness and breath-taking views of Earth."

Either way, the dawn of the space tourism industry has come.

"At Virgin Galactic, we believe that space is transformational," said Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, in a statement released Tuesday. 

"We plan to have our first 1,000 customers on board at the start of commercial service later this year, providing an incredibly strong foundation as we begin regular operations and scale our fleet."

Virgin Galactic's first public flight will take off from its New Mexico base once multiple days of intensive astronaut training are finished, in addition to "custom accommodations" and "world-class amenities." Okay, maybe the training won't be that hard.

Virgin Galactic New Logo
Virgin Galactic's new logo replaced Branson's eye with a purple outline of its spacecraft. Source: Virgin Galactic / Wikimedia

Virgin Galactic does not have to lift 1,000 people to outpace rivals

The billionaire underdog also rebranded his aerospace firm — from the iris of Sir Richard Branson to an illustration of its vehicle, the VSS Unity, tinged purple. 

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Currently, Virgin Galactic has only one operational spaceplane, the VSS Unity, which debuted to the world in 2016. Unlike SpaceX's Starship or Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket, which both launch from the ground, the VSS Unity is lifted to roughly 49,000 feet by a gigantic carrier aircraft called White Knight Two. After reaching that altitude, the smaller vehicle is dropped and ignites its engine and rockets into space.

After offering passengers several minutes of zero-gravity bliss, it simply glides down to the runway, like a conventional aircraft. A recently finished second vehicle, the VSS Imaginedebuted in March 2021, with a third spacecraft, the VSS Inspire, still in development.

Virgin Galactic might need more than three operational vehicles to meet its ambitious volume goals. Still, if it manages to lift even half of its projected 1,000-astronaut docket into space in 2022, Virgin Galactic would be far ahead of both Blue Origin and SpaceX when it comes to passengers.

Blue Origin's New Shepard takes the most similar trajectory to Virgin Galactic — simply flying paying passengers to the edge and space and back, without a sustained stay. So far, Blue Origin has lifted 14 people to the edge of space, including Bezos himself, his brother, and the Star Trek legend William Shatner.

On the other hand, SpaceX has only lifted four non-astronauts to space aboard its Inspiration4 mission in September 2021. But with Starship going orbital as soon as March, Musk's aerospace firm is about to hit the accelerator: On Monday, Jared Isaacman's Polaris Program announced that it would fund three crewed missions on SpaceX's Starship. However, these missions "will demonstrate new technologies, conduct extensive research, and ultimately culminate in the first flight of SpaceX's Starship with humans on board," according to a tweet from Polaris. They aren't exactly joyrides.

All of this is to say that in competing with 14 people lofted by Blue Origin, and only four from SpaceX (not counting multiple missions for NASA to the ISS), Branson's Virgin Galactic could surpass both SpaceX and Blue Origin in the nascent space tourism industry.

And if it does, it might signal an impending price drop in the tickets, which could change everything.