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Space Vehicle Maker Now in ‘Galactic’ Orbit

Virgin Galactic earlier this month purchased The Spaceship Co., allowing Virgin Galactic to build in house a commercial fleet of sub-orbital space vehicles. Aerospace industry analysts say the acquisition aligns NewSpace industry pacesetter Virgin Galactic with an innovative company initially created to build space vehicles for various commercial space operators. Virgin Galactic may widen its lead in the commercial space race if it can fix problems with its rocket engine — its latest and greatest challenge — and if The Spaceship Co. manufactures spacecraft exclusively for the company. Only a few firms specialize in building commercial space vehicles and The Spaceship Co. is regarded as having the best technology and being the furthest along, observers say. “That is what you would want to own right now,” said Greg Autry, an aerospace expert and commercial space industry author. The Spaceship Co. was started as a joint venture between two Mojave companies — Virgin Galactic, the space tourism business of billionaire Richard Branson’s empire, and Scaled Composites, an aircraft design and development company founded by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan. Virgin acquired Scaled Composites’ 30 percent stake in the venture on Oct. 6. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, and the companies could not be reached as of press time. Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, owned by a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Corp., founded The Spaceship Co. in 2005, after SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize by demonstrating it could fly to an altitude of 100 kilometers twice in six days. SpaceShipOne was developed and built by Scaled Composites. By selling its stake in The Spaceship Co., Scaled Composites turns over the development of SpaceShipTwo to Virgin Galactic. However, it remains involves in the final portion of the SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo test flight programs, according to a release from Virgin Galactic. Space odyssey Virgin Galactic said its acquisition marked the end of the first phase of development of The Spaceship Co. Last October, The Spaceship Co. opened an $8 million manufacturing facility for final assembly of the SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo, the carrier aircraft. A second building serves as the fabrication and sub-assembly facility. Additionally, The Spaceship Co. has hired a specialized workforce to propel the project forward, the company said. Marco Caceres, senior analyst and director of space studies with The Teal Group in Virginia, said Virgin Galactic’s purchase of The Spaceship Co. solidifies its commitment to space exploration. “Once you invest in the facilities and the workforce you take on long-term costs,” he said. Caceres says the investment may prove to be a smart move for Virgin Galactic. The company likely will save on its spacecraft manufacturing costs now that The Spaceship Co. is under its corporate umbrella, Cacares said. When manufacturing work is contracted out, there is another layer of cost involved because the contractor needs to make a profit, he explained. “This is a brand new industry and there are unforeseen costs,” Caceres said. “The more you have in house the better ability there is to control costs.” Autry, the aerospace expert and author, said prior to Virgin Galatic’s recent acquisition there was speculation that the company planned to sell off a portion of its ownership in The Spaceship Co. Its purchase demonstrates optimism for the future, he said. Indeed, some say Virgin Galactic may clinch its competitive edge by owning The Spaceship Co. outright. “If they are owned by Virgin, they have less interest in supplying to competitors as when they had only been partially owned by Virgin,” Autry said. But there are risks, too. If problems arise amid the manufacturing of the spacecraft, Virgin Galactic may not have an outside vendor that can provide assistance, he said. In June, Virgin Galactic reached two milestones in its quest to bring tourists and others to space. SpaceShipTwo performed its first glide test flight at an altitude of 51,000 feet, and a 55-second hot fire test took place of the rocket engine. Powered test flights are planned for later this year.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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