Richard Branson’s space jaunt a ‘marketing coup’ for Virgin Galactic
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Richard Branson’s space jaunt a ‘marketing coup’ for Virgin Galactic

Richard Branson’s space jaunt a ‘marketing coup’ for Virgin Galactic

The 70-year-old billionaire and five employees completed a long-awaited test flight to space on Sunday

Richard Branson’s rocket-powered flight more than 80 kilometres above Earth is taking investors in his space-tourism company to new heights.

The 70-year-old billionaire and five employees completed a long-awaited test flight to space on Sunday. The success of the hourlong mission bolsters Virgin Galactic Holdings’ plan to debut tourism trips next year.

“Welcome to the dawn of a new space age,” Branson told guests at the Spaceport America complex near the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

Branson’s achievement is a “massive marketing coup” for Virgin Galactic that will be hard for the general public to ignore, Canaccord Genuity analyst Ken Herbert said in a research note. “The challenge now will be for the company to maintain the momentum and establish a flight plan in 2022 that can demonstrate a repeatable and increasing commercial launch cadence.”

Shares of Virgin Galactic rose 2.4 per cent in premarket trading to $50.36 as of 9.02am in New York. The stock briefly jumped as much as 22 per cent earlier — just above an all-time peak reached in February. The Las Cruces, New Mexico-based company’s shares had doubled this year through Friday, lifting their value to about $11.8bn.

Virgin Galactic plans to begin working through a backlog of around 600 confirmed customers in early 2022. The company has said it will resume ticket sales after the summer’s test flights, with executives saying that fares will be higher than the prior price of $250,000 a seat.

Blue Origin

The suborbital journey kicks off a landmark month for the future of space tourism, with Branson demonstrating Virgin Galactic’s capabilities nine days before Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos plans to fly on a rocket made by Blue Origin, his space venture. Both companies envision businesses catering to wealthy tourists willing to pay top dollar for a short period of weightlessness and an unforgettable view of the Earth and heavens.

Virgin Galactic’s test flight demonstrated that such trips — once the stuff of science fiction — are becoming increasingly realistic.

While mostly accessible only to a tiny number of super-wealthy customers, they would add a new dimension to a burgeoning industry of private-sector space companies with plans for voyages to the International Space Station and new human outposts.

Branson and his fellow crew members experienced a few minutes of weightlessness as the Unity reached its peak altitude.

“So I looked out the window and the view is just stunning,” operations engineer Colin Bennett said afterward. “It’s very Zen; it’s very kind of peaceful up there as well.”

Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, said the memories of seeing the Earth from space will stay with him.

“I’m never going to be able to do it justice,” he said. “It’s indescribably beautiful.”

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