We are short shares of Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc. Please click here to read full disclosures.
We are short shares of Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc., often described as the only publicly traded space-tourism company. After going public in October 2019 by way of a merger with a “blank check” company, Virgin Galactic has seen its share price and trading volume soar. It’s become a retail darling, with day traders captivated by images of billionaires donning space suits, blasting off from launchpads, and looking down on the blue marble of Earth.
But Virgin Galactic’s $250,000+ commercial “spaceflights” – if they ever actually happen, after some 17 years of delays and disasters – will offer only the palest imitations of these experiences. In lieu of pressurized space suits with helmets – unnecessary since so little time will be spent in the upper atmosphere – the company commissioned Under Armour to provide “high-tech pajamas.” In lieu of vertical takeoff, Virgin’s “spaceship” must cling to the underside of a specialized airplane for the first 45,000 feet up, because its rocket motor is too weak to push through the lower atmosphere on its own. In lieu of the blue-marble vista and life in zero-g, Virgin’s so-called astronauts will at best be able to catch a glimpse of the curvature of Earth and a few minutes of weightlessness before plunging back to ground.
This isn’t “tourism,” let alone Virgin’s more grandiose term, “exploration”; it’s closer to a souped-up roller coaster, like the “Drop of Doom” ride at Six Flags. It isn’t even really “space.” The traditional international definition of “space” (known as the Kármán line), which Virgin Galactic itself once targeted, puts the boundary at an altitude of 100 km, which the company’s technology can’t reach. Indeed, Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin is also working on suborbital flights, noted this Virgin weakness in a 2019 interview, adding that Blue Origin’s “mission” has always been “to fly above the Kármán line, because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not.” Veteran astronaut Chris Hadfield put it even more bluntly back in 2013, calling Virgin Galactic’s planned offering “not much of a space flight…They’re just going to go up and fall back down again…[W]hether that’ll be enough for the quarter-million-dollar price tag? I don’t know.” With Blue Origin’s superior experiences likely to beat out Virgin’s in the near term, and SpaceX’s multi-day excursions – going into Earth’s orbit and staying there for several days rather than several minutes – winning out in the longer term, Virgin’s moment in the sun may be over soon after its first real flights finally lift off.
Hadfield also presciently warned, “Eventually they’ll crash one” – and was proven right just twelve months later by a fatal catastrophe. Tests of Virgin’s systems have already killed four people, and since the company is “not building new technologies but just copying very old ones,” as one industry veteran complained, the company’s crude aerospace technology will likely lead to more deaths. How quickly will spaceflights screech to a halt as fatalities pile up? Dangerous and unappealing, Virgin Galactic’s sole product – whose official commercial launch has been delayed so many times it’s a running joke – cannot justify the company’s $8 billion valuation. “Virgin” or not, this business is screwed.
Read the full report here.