Last October, the space tourism company Virgin Galactic, founded by Sir Richard Branson, became publicly traded. After opening at $11.75 a share, the SPCE stock value generally declined, briefly reaching a low just under $7 a share late in 2019.
At around the same time, the company’s chairman, venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, began to talk about developing point-to-point suborbital travel. This advance, he said, would come after Virgin Galactic developed its space tourism business based upon a small rocket-powered spacecraft launched from a large airplane. Such trips, which provide a few minutes of weightlessness, cost at least $250,000 per person. Commercial service may begin in early 2021.
Moving from this technology to a rocket-powered vehicle capable of carrying passengers on long suborbital hops around the world represents a significant step forward. It would involve getting a larger, much more powerful spacecraft to work, making it safe, convincing regulators to allow spaceflights near populated areas, and finally bringing costs down to something that more than a handful of the ultra-wealthy can afford.
However, Palihapitiya suggested that the idea of point-to-point suborbital travel is not just for some distant, hazy future—but within the near-term plans of the company. “When you think about that world, that world will be five to 10 years away,” he said.
Since those comments, other Virgin Galactic officials have also spoken about the potential market for hypersonic point-to-point travel. The company’s stock price has spiked as high as $40 but more recently has traded at a value of between $15 and $20 a share; Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas has said that nearly half of the stock’s value should be based on the potential of point-to-point travel. But the US government is not so sure the idea has near-term promise.
Slowing the pace
On Monday, during the meeting of a committee that advises the Federal Aviation Administration on commercial space, the topic came up during a discussion with Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council. Pace and the Trump administration have sought to advance hypersonic technologies, particularly for military applications. A committee member, Paul Damphousse, asked if this interest extends to point-to-point commercial travel.
In his response, Pace was less than enthusiastic about the prospects for point-to-point cargo and passenger transportation. “Maybe this is a poor reflection on me, but I still see that as somewhat speculative and somewhat over the horizon,” he said.
For commercial human spaceflight, Pace added that his focus right now is on supporting companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin in their efforts to develop safe suborbital spaceflight—brief sojourns above the atmosphere that take four to six people into space and bring them back to the ground at the same location.
“I see us working right now on trying to get the suborbital market up and running and stabilized,” Pace said. “I think people look forward to the possibility of point-to-point passenger and cargo travel, but right now just getting routine suborbital access to space and pushing hard on unmanned hypersonics is where the action is.”
It is not too soon to think about regulations for point-to-point travel with humans, he said, because it will take a long time to develop standards. “But,” he added, “I still think that’s a bit farther out.”