Virgin Galactic hints at further delays as billionaires leapfrog Branson in space tourism race

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Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc (NYSE:SPCE) is continuing to lose money and lose ground to other billionaire-backed rivals in the race to take tourists into space.

In first-quarter results overnight, the company said while it has now corrective work on its spaceship and is ready to start pre-flight procedures for its next manned flight, which had been planned this month, the timing “is currently being evaluated”.

During the first three months of 2021 engineers discovered further anomalies with its SpaceShipTwo’s ignition systems, leading to the delay of a crucial flight test and meaning that passenger flights are unlikely to take place until next year.

This followed the misfiring of rockets during a manned flight test in December, which the company attributed to fail-safe procedures kicking in when the onboard computer lost connection.

Adding to ongoing criticism that Virgin Galactic has a ‘little too much sizzle and not quite enough substance‘, while Branson’s publicly listed tourism company stands around evaluating, fellow billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are able to pour cash into their privately owned space rocket companies and are leap-frogging the Brit with their space rocket companies.

Musk’s SpaceX is due to take its first paying customers into space later this year and last week Bezos’s Blue Origin said it will start selling its first tickets for sub-orbital sightseeing tours this year.

With no space tourists paying for flights, Virgin Galactic’s revenues remain at zero, leading to a net loss of US$130mln for the quarter, though this was down from the US$377mln a year ago.

Cash remained healthy enough at US$617mln at the end of March and it reassured that the number of ‘future astronauts’ on its waiting list remained at roughly 600 at the end of March, as it has done for all the previous results since pausing registrations in 2018.

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