Virgin Galactic has signed up 625 individuals for its planned suborbital spaceflights, lining up revenue of at least $125 million, in what CEO George Whitesides asserts is a strong sign of the excitement and potential of commercial space ventures.
Virgin’s commercial human spaceflights could begin next year, he added. “That will be a fundamental shift,” Whitesides stressed. “It’s sort of like we’ve been working on this for so long in the space community that it always seems like it’s in the future. But we’re really almost there, where people will be able to buy a ticket and go down to Spaceport America, get their week of training, and … have your ‘Right Stuff’ moment.”
Speaking to the Aero Club of Washington on Aug. 13, Whitesides confirmed ticket prices are now up to $250,000 apiece – although he did not say how many customers agreed to that price. Before the first rocket-powered flight of the company’s SpaceShipTwo in April, Virgin was charging $200,000, and as of mid-May had signed up 590 potential private astronauts. Regardless, all customers are paying and there are no “comps.”
Interestingly, the customer base has shifted to become 60% foreign, according to Whitesides. Previously half were Americans. But that shift underscores one the company’s goals, as well as a key reason for Whitesides to speak to a Washington audience: Virgin and the rest of the nascent commercial space industry would like human-rated spacecraft to be kept off the strict U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) as part of the Obama administration’s reform of export controls.
In a move long sought by industry, the administration in May, with Congress’s recent approval, acted to shift commercial satellites from the State Department’s U.S. Munitions List (USML) to the Commerce Department’s less restrictive Commerce Control List for export licenses. At the same time, officials proposed adding crewed space vehicles to the USML under ITAR control.
Whitesides has said previously that Virgin Galactic is considering expanding its operations to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, home of its strategic partner Aabar Investments, and maybe a planned high-latitude spaceport at Kiruna, Sweden. “Those are two interesting places,” he said before the Paris air show. “Abu Dhabi is our priority, given the substantial commitment made in our company.”
Whitesides also took the opportunity of his Washington speech to call for “appropriate regulation” of the commercial space industry, and praised FAA oversight to date as reaching the right balance. And he proffered a personal call for elected leaders and officials to increase consideration of the effect that federal assistance can have in boosting U.S. competitiveness, citing Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) as an example. NASA’s support of SpaceX not only helped meet its own mission requirements, but has spawned a U.S. company on the path toward international competition.
“Where there is a commercial application,” he told Aviation Week, “we should think about that.”