Virgin Galactic announced Wednesday that it will collaborate with a Boeing subsidiary to develop the next generation of the twin-fuselage aircraft that will transport the space tourism company’s rocket ship into space.
Aurora Flight Sciences will construct two of the special carrier planes in Mississippi and West Virginia. Final assembly will still take place at Virgin Galactic’s Mojave, California, facility, with the first mothership produced under the contract expected to enter service in 2025.
Each aircraft will be capable of up to 200 launches per year.
According to Virgin Galactic officials, outsourcing the work will provide access to labour, reduce supply chain disruptions, and result in faster production times. The company has repeatedly delayed the launch of paying customers, with commercial service now expected in 2023.
Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier stated that the next-generation motherships will be critical to the company’s expansion.
“They will be faster to manufacture, easier to maintain, and will enable us to fly significantly more missions each year,” he said in a statement. “With the scale and strength of Boeing behind it, Aurora is the ideal manufacturing partner for us.”
Virgin Galactic evaluated various aerospace manufacturers early in the process but chose Aurora in part because of its track record of developing cutting-edge aircraft. For the past three decades, it has designed and built a new aircraft nearly every year.
Officials from Virgin Galactic also emphasized Aurora’s direct access to Boeing’s expertise and other resources.
Aurora and Virgin Galactic have been developing design specifications, as well as workforce and manufacturing requirements, for several months.
After reaching nearly 50,000 feet (15,000 metres), Virgin Galactic’s space plane is released from the carrier aircraft and drops for a brief moment before igniting its rocket motor. When it reaches space, it turns off, leaving passengers with silence, weightlessness, and a view of Earth below. The rocket ship then glides back to the spaceport runway.
It’s been nearly a year since Virgin Galactic launched founder Richard Branson and five Virgin Galactic employees toward the edge of space, as the British entrepreneur raced to beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos and his rocket company Blue Origin.
Virgin Galactic reopened the ticket window just weeks after the flight, with prices starting at $450,000 per seat. By the fall, the company had postponed a planned research flight with members of the Italian air force and had begun scheduled aircraft assessments and maintenance.