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Virgin Galactic lays off 40 employees ahead of transition to New Mexico spaceport

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Meanwhile, more test flights are coming up

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity on its first trip to space
Image: Virgin Galactic

Space tourism venture Virgin Galactic laid off around 40 employees earlier this month, as the company prepares to transition from its test program to commercial flights with paying customers. The layoffs, first reported by NMPolitics.net, amount to less than 5 percent of the company, and include employees at both Virgin Galactic and partner The SpaceShip Company, which builds the vehicles that Virgin flies.

“Recently we separated a small number of our team in order to position our organization for the drive to commercial operations following our successful recent spaceflight, and make room for new skill sets that we need to bring in over the course of this year,” a spokesperson for Virgin Galactic said in a statement to The Verge. Virgin Galactic says it is “offering support” to the employees that were let go.

The news comes just as Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson claims he might be riding to space on the company’s spaceplane, the VSS Unity, as early as this year. “I will hope to go up in the middle of this year myself,” Branson said during an interview with CBS This Morning on Thursday. He mentioned that Virgin plans to do another test flight with its spaceplane in a “handful of weeks.” The company will then conduct a few more test flights before moving operations to Virgin Galactic’s commercial facility, Spaceport America, located near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

Ahead of that move, Virgin Galactic also announced a new partnership with Under Armour yesterday. The clothing company will be making the “next generation of space wear” for Virgin Galactic customers who ride into space, as well as spacesuits and boots for the Virgin’s pilots. Under Armour will also be making uniforms for the Virgin Galactic employees. The designs for this clothing have not yet been released, but will supposedly be revealed later this year.

Virgin Galactic’s business model revolves around sending paying customers to the edge of space, where they’ll experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Right now, the VSS Unity is the company’s only passenger vehicle capable of doing that. Unlike rockets that take off vertically, this spaceplane is meant to be carried to an altitude of 35,000 feet, under the wing of a giant carrier aircraft. From there, it drops from the wing and ignites its rocket engine, climbing to the edge of space and giving people a taste of microgravity. After a few minutes, the spaceplane readjusts its wings and glides back to Earth, landing on a runway.

The VSS Unity, which debuted in 2016, is Virgin Galactic’s second vehicle. Its first, the VSS Enterprise, was destroyed during a test flight in 2014, leading to the death of one of its two pilots. Virgin Galactic has worked to come back from that tragedy with the VSS Unity, and has performed four powered flights with the vehicle over the last year. During its latest flight in December, the VSS Unity reached a height of 51 miles, or 87 kilometers — a threshold that many consider to be the boundary of space. It was the first time Virgin Galactic had ever achieved such a milestone.

Up until now, all of Virgin Galactic’s test flights have been done out of the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. But the company’s eventual goal is to conduct commercial passenger flights from Spaceport America. Virgin Galactic signed a joint agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration in 2014, allowing the company to conduct commercial flights from the spaceport. Now it seems that Virgin Galactic is on the cusp of making the move to New Mexico, which means employees could be relocating as well. The layoffs may be a result of that reshuffling. NMPolitics reported that most of the employees laid off were based in Mojave.

Virgin Galactic isn’t the only private space company making personnel changes this month. On January 11th, SpaceX announced that it was laying off 10 percent of its workforce, which equals about 577 people. And space startup Stratolaunch, which has built the world’s biggest plane for launching rockets to orbit, reportedly laid off more than 50 people this month. Stratolaunch also announced it was scaling back rocket development following the death of its founder, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.