Virgin Galactic announces state-of-the-art spaceship hub in Arizona

By Can Emir,
Published by Interesting Engineering, 27 November 2023

Explore Virgin Galactic’s Mesa facility, a cutting-edge hub poised to revolutionize spacecraft manufacturing, boosting space travel capabilities and economic growth.

The aerospace and space travel company Virgin Galactic has announced a major leap in its operations with the establishment of a state-of-the-art spaceship manufacturing facility in Mesa, Arizona.

This move, detailed in a recent company release, outlines Virgin Galactic’s ambitious plans for its next-generation Delta class spaceships, aiming to boost production and flight frequency significantly.

What is Virgin Galactic’s new Mesa facility?

Situated in the Greater Phoenix area near the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, the new manufacturing facility is poised to be a game-changer for Virgin Galactic’s production capabilities. The company envisions the facility as a crucial element in the assembly line for its Delta class spaceships, each designed to support the ambitious target of 400 flights per year from Spaceport America.

The facility, currently under construction and expected to be fully operational by late 2023, holds the promise of generating hundreds of highly skilled aerospace engineering and manufacturing jobs in the region. In line with this, Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier expressed enthusiasm about expanding into the Greater Phoenix area, emphasizing the availability of outstanding aerospace talent.

“Our spaceship final assembly factory is key to accelerating the production of our Delta fleet, enabling a rapid increase in flight capacity that will drive our revenue growth,” said Colglazier, underscoring the pivotal role the Mesa facility will play in Virgin Galactic’s strategic vision.

The Delta class spaceship represents Virgin Galactic’s next step in advancing commercial space travel. The company envisions these spacecraft flying weekly, supporting a more frequent and accessible space tourism experience.

According to the company release, the first Delta ships are expected to commence revenue-generating payload flights in late 2025, with private astronaut flights to follow in 2026.

To facilitate the production of the Delta class spaceships, Virgin Galactic is in the process of selecting various suppliers to build the major subassemblies. These components will then be transported to the Mesa facility for final assembly before the completed spaceships are ferried to Spaceport America, New Mexico, for flight tests and commercial operation.

In addition to being a hub for assembly, the Mesa facility is slated to adopt cutting-edge manufacturing processes underpinned by a digital twin architecture. This technological approach is expected to enable seamless collaboration between Virgin Galactic and its suppliers, ensuring real-time coordination, governance, and heightened production efficiency and reliability.

Virgin Galactic’s President of Aerospace Systems, Swami Iyer, highlighted the strategic importance of Arizona as an innovation hub, geographically situated between the company’s existing operations in Southern California and New Mexico. This positioning is intended to expedite progress from conceptual design to production on a larger scale.

The expansion is crucial for Virgin Galactic as it shifts its focus towards its next-generation Delta class vehicle. The company’s current VSS Unity spaceplane has operated since its first crewed flight on June 29, launching private passengers to suborbital heights.

However, with the upcoming retirement of Unity, all eyes are now on the Delta class, which promises advancements in passenger capacity, maintenance requirements, and flight frequency.

A recent news article outlines the expectations surrounding the Delta class, which details the improvements and innovations expected from Virgin Galactic’s upgraded spaceplane. The Delta class is projected to carry six passengers, an increase from Unity’s four-person capacity.

Notably, the Delta vehicles are anticipated to require less maintenance between flights, enabling them to launch up to twice a week compared to Unity’s once-a-month schedule.

The new Delta vehicle will share the outer mold line with Unity, but its composite structure and avionics are designed to be lighter and faster to turn around between flights. Additionally, the Delta class requires a new mothership. Virgin Galactic has partnered with Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing subsidiary based in Virginia, to design and build these next-generation motherships.

The Delta class vehicle is expected to offer enhanced passenger capacity and flight frequency and aims to contribute to Virgin Galactic’s revenue growth. During an earnings call in August, the company announced a revenue of $2 million in the second quarter of 2023.

However, despite this success, Virgin Galactic has yet to achieve profitability in its space tourism business.

The company sold about three-fourths of the first 800 tickets at a price tag between $200,000 and $250,000, raising ticket prices to $450,000 each. With each Delta spaceplane costing between $50 to $60 million to produce and an estimated lifetime of 500 flights, Virgin Galactic is banking on the potential profits from the new vehicle.

The Delta class, with its six passengers paying $450,000 per ticket, could generate $2.7 million in revenue for each flight, with operating costs per flight totaling around $400,000. This projected profit margin positions the Delta class as a critical component in Virgin Galactic’s quest for a profitable space tourism business.

While the company is optimistic about the potential of the Delta class, challenges and uncertainties remain. Virgin Galactic has not yet commenced the production of the Delta vehicle, and the ambitious timeline for flight tests in 2025 and commercial launches in 2026 might face hurdles, as witnessed by delays in its predecessor, Unity.

As construction progresses on the Mesa facility and Virgin Galactic navigates the challenges ahead, the aerospace industry watches closely for developments in the company’s pursuit of regular, profitable, and accessible space travel.

The Mesa facility’s operationalization is anticipated to be a pivotal moment in Virgin Galactic’s journey toward expanding the boundaries of commercial space exploration.

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