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Virgin Galactic expects to receive key FAA license within next two spaceflights

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Virgin Galactic’s carrier aircraft releases its spacecraft Unity during a glide flight test.

Virgin Galactic

Space tourism venture Virgin Galactic is steadily moving closer to flying customers to the edge of space, with the company expecting to clear remaining Federal Aviation Administration milestones after just one or two more rocket-powered test flights.

Virgin Galactic completed its second glide flight test in New Mexico last week, a success that the company expects will allow it to once again fly to space. The company last conducted a spaceflight in February 2019, before Virgin Galactic moved its spacecraft from a testing facility in California’s Mojave Desert to the company’s operations center in New Mexico.

The company has not said how many more test flights it will conduct before flying founder Sir Richard Branson, which will mark the beginning of commercial service. But Virgin Galactic told CNBC on Tuesday that, once it flies one or possibly two more rocket-powered test flights, it expects to pass the remaining FAA milestones needed for final regulatory approval to conduct regular spaceflights. As of May the company had cleared 24 of the FAA’s 29 milestones toward the license.

Virgin Galactic has its own set of test objectives to complete, which it emphasizes are in addition to the FAA’s milestones. One of the objectives is to fly four of its employees as passengers on a spaceflight, in addition to the two pilots who control the spacecraft. Previously, Virgin Galactic has flown chief astronaut trainer Beth Moses as a passenger on a spaceflight — one of five employees, including four pilots, who have become FAA-recognized astronauts.

The NASA revenue opportunity

Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft Unity reaches space for the first time.

Source: Virgin Galactic

Vertical Research Partners analyst Darryl Genovesi told investors in a note on Tuesday that the firm expects Virgin Galactic’s next major milestone will be its reveal of the spacecraft’s cabin. Citing a call with CEO George Whitesides on Monday, Genovesi said that the cabin reveal will be “sooner rather than later in the summer,” with the company expected to resume rocket-powered flights after that.

Virgin Galactic shares rose as much as 4% from its previous close of $15.42. Vertical Research Partners reiterated its buy rating on the stock, with a $29 price target that implies shares will climb more than 80% from current levels.

The company is also eyeing the possibility of flying NASA astronauts and researchers, which would be an additional source of revenue to its current list of more than 600 private-paying tourists. 

Genovesi said that his firm has “the sense that, altogether, NASA and other space agencies could send 100-200 people up annually on Virgin Galactic metal under this contract framework,” with potentially “above-average pricing.” The analyst forecast that, within a few years, flying passengers for government agencies like NASA “seems to us like a $50-100M average annual revenue opportunity” for Virgin Galactic.

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