Virgin Galactic stock plummets after commercial spaceflight delay

The delay comes as the company's VSS Unity and VMS Eve vehicles will undergo an enhancement period, which is expected to conclude in mid-2022

Shares of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic plunged as much as 20% in pre-market trading Friday after the aerospace company announced schedule changes that will delay its commercial spaceflights until the fourth quarter of 2022. 

Ticker Security Last Change Change %
SPCE VIRGIN GALACTIC HOLDINGS, INC. 14.37 -0.71 -4.71%

After being cleared for takeoff at the end of last month following the conclusion of a Federal Aviation Administration investigation into Virgin Galactic's Unity 22 test flight in July, the company said its Unity 23 mission would target a flight window in mid-October. 

However, the mission, which will carry members of the Italian Air Force and focus on microgravity research and the professional astronaut training experience, is now being pushed back while the company conducts a previously announced enhancement period for its VSS Unity spaceplane and VMS Eve mothership, which is designed to improve vehicle performance and flight-rate capability, as well as new physical inspections after a lab test "flagged a possible reduction in the strength margins of certain materials used to modify specific joints."  

"While this new lab test data has had no impact on the vehicles, our test flight protocols have clearly defined strength margins, and further analysis will assess whether any additional work is required to keep them at or above established levels," Virgin Galactic said in a statement. "Given the time required for this effort, the Company has determined the most efficient and expedient path to commercial service is to complete this work now in parallel with the planned enhancement program."

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Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier told analysts on the company's second quarter earnings call in August that the enhancements, subject to testing and verification, could reduce Unity's turnaround flight time to four to five weeks, down from the current rate of seven to eight weeks, and potentially allow VMS Eve to fly 100 flights between major maintenance inspections, compared to the current interval of 10 flights. Colglazier noted at the time that the enhancement period would likely conclude sometime in mid-2022. 

The rocket plane carrying Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and other crew members takes off from Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, Sunday, July 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton) (AP Newsroom)

Following the enhancement period, Virgin Galactic will conduct its Unity 23, Unity 24 and Unity 25 missions, the latter of which represents the start of commercial service with private astronauts. 

"Our decisions are driven by detailed and thorough analysis, and we fly based on the most accurate and comprehensive data available. Virgin Galactic vehicles are designed with significant margins for safety, providing layers of protection that far exceed loads experienced and expected to occur on our flights," Colglazier said in a statement Friday. "The re-sequencing of our enhancement period and the Unity 23 flight underscores our safety-first procedures, provides the most efficient path to commercial service, and is the right approach for our business and our customers."

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The schedule changes are unrelated to a recent probe into a potential defect in a supplier component announced last month, which Virgin Galactic says has since been resolved. 

"While the supplied component in question was not on either VMS Eve or VSS Unity, in accordance with safety protocols, Virgin Galactic completed detailed inspections and scans which found all components met quality and safety standards and were ready for flight," the company said.

Virgin Galactic is currently selling tickets for upcoming spaceflights for $450,000 apiece. The company plans to offer a range of product offerings for private astronaut flights, including a single-seat option, a multi-seat, couples, families and friends package and a full-flight buyout. Meanwhile, the company plans to charge $600,000 per seat on its future microgravity research and professional astronaut training flights.