The first passenger carrying flight by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space-plane service, which is already over a decade late, could be delayed by years more after the crash in the Mojave desert of the VSS Enterprise last week.
The crash and the realisation that it would invite years of scrutiny by The United States’ National Transportation Safety Board has prompted a further flight of spooked investors, after an earlier pre-disaster departure by a group this year. While Branson’s seemingly limitless optimism about his space-tourism venture served to calm investors initially, eleven years after the first promised passenger flight date of 2008 many are beginning to view the endeavour with growing scepticism.
The Daily Mail newspaper records how a group of senior investors, including founder members of the venture decided to pull out in February, citing endless setbacks and a colossal financial black-hole in the company that was costing perhaps many tens of millions of dollars a year to run. The ten investors each asked for their £125,000 deposit back through a legal letter sent to the company. So far only three have received their money.
One of the signatories said: “We’d done our sums, looked at how much Virgin Galactic was spending, had spent and how much cash it now had, and we were seriously worried… The company was, and still is, getting through tens, maybe hundreds, of millions a year, yet has virtually no income. Branson kept saying he’d be in space by Christmas. But everything we knew about the technical side told us that was nonsense”.
Others were growing tired of their treatment at the hands of Virgin, which they claimed saw them as a cash-cow. Investors were invited to ‘networking events’ with other “future astronauts” at venues such as Branson’s private Carribbean Island, his private game reserve, and his ski lodge in Verbier. Investors were invited to pay up to £28,000 for a week away.
It is reported since the crash, more investors have walked away, despite statements by Branson to the contrary. A trickle of money flowing out began immediately after the announcement of the crash, and ended up with some twenty individuals terminating their involvement.
After the crash of VSS Enterprise, development of the programme is likely to be significantly slowed by the investigation into it’s causes, and the construction of a successor craft will mean the testing programme will have to begin again from scratch. If cleared to do so by the relevant authorities, the next space-plane could be ready to fly in six months time.