Three months after Richard Branson reached the edge of space, Virgin Galactic, his space tourism company, is postponing its next test flight to make what it calls enhancements to its space plane that would make it safer over the long-term, the company announced Thursday.
The decision means that a test flight scheduled for this month, which was to have flown members of the Italian Air Force and National Research Council, will be delayed until the second half of next year, and commercial service wouldn’t begin until the fourth quarter of that year, the company said.
The stand down is yet another sign of the complexities of human space flight and comes as a number of companies have been working on flying paying customers to either the edge of space or to orbit. Virgin Galactic has repeatedly delayed flying its paying customers, some of whom have waited years. After suspending ticket sales, which had been priced at $250,000 each, the company announced this year it was reopening tickets sales at $450,000 each.
In a statement, Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said the company’s spacecraft “are designed with significant margins for safety, providing layers of protection that far exceed loads experienced and expected to occur on our flights.” The enhancement to the spacecraft “underscores our safety-first procedures, provides the most efficient path to commercial service and is the right approach for our business and our customers.”
Earlier this year, Branson, who had been itching to get to space for years, moved up his flight and was able to beat rival Jeff Bezos to space by less than two weeks. But Bezos’ Blue Origin just completed its second successful human spaceflight on Wednesday, carrying William Shatner and three others on a quick suborbital flight to an altitude of more than 66 miles.
It is planning one more flight by the end of the year and a half dozen or more next year.
A Virgin Galactic spokesperson said that there were no issues with the vehicle currently and that it would be cleared to fly in the next month or two. But as the company tested materials in the laboratory to determine how often parts and materials would need to be inspected and maintained, the data projected lower safety margins over the long-term.
The company had been planning to stand down for some time at the end of the year to perform maintenance on its mother ship, which hoists the spaceplane aloft so that it can be “air launched” from about 45,000 feet. It will now perform that work immediately and include the additional spacecraft materials in the review as well.
While the delay for the Italian Air Force mission is several months, the delay of commercial service from when it was originally foreseen should be only about a month or so, the person said.
The Italian Air Force flight had been delayed previously after the company noticed a potential defect in a component supplied by an outside contractor. The current delay is unrelated to that, the company said. The earlier issue has been resolved.
Virgin Galactic was also grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration this year after Branson’s flight went off course during its descent and controllers failed to inform the FAA it was flying outside of its restricted airspace. The FAA announced last month it was allowing the company to return to flight operations after the company made changes on how it would communicate with the FAA during flights.