Richard Branson continues to be in a tight race to be the first to operate a large-scale business bringing tourists into space. On Tuesday, he moved closer to winning a different contest: being the first to achieve that goal with a publicly traded company.
Branson’s Virgin Galactic announced plans to merge with a public shell company, a deal that would give the space tourism business its first stock listing.
If the deal is completed, Virgin Galactic would be able to sell shares to raise money, a potentially crucial advantage over rivals like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has so far been less focused on space tourism and is likely to compete more closely with another of Branson’s companies, Virgin Orbit.
Neither of those companies is expected to go public anytime soon.
“By embarking on this new chapter, at this advanced point in Virgin Galactic’s development, we can open space to more investors and in doing so, open space to thousands of new astronauts,” Branson said in a statement.
Branson had previously been in negotiations to raise up to $1 billion from Saudi Arabia for Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit. But he suspended the talks after the killing and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives.
Virgin Galactic surpassed a major milestone for private space flight in December when one of its vehicles soared into the lowest reaches of space. The spacecraft was carrying two pilots and a payload simulating the weight of paying passengers. In February, the same vessel went higher and faster than it had on the previous flight, with three people, including two pilots, on board.
The transaction Tuesday calls for combining Virgin Galactic and Social Capital Hedosophia, a so-called special purpose acquisition company, which is publicly traded and sponsored by the investment firms Social Capital and Hedosophia. Special purpose acquisition companies are meant to buy and merge with private businesses, giving those companies their stock market listings.
As part of the transaction, Social Capital’s chief executive, Chamath Palihapitiya, will become Virgin Galactic’s chairman.
The deal is expected to close by year’s end, pending approval by Social Capital Hedosophia’s current investors.