17.10.19 | The space race is on

By Bryna Howes 17 October 2019 3 min read

In 1955, Jim Henson created the first version of Kermit the Frog. Winston Churchill resigned as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, citing poor health. Disneyland opened to the public in Anaheim, California. Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger.

And the Soviet Union announced it would launch a satellite “in the near future,” a few days after the US announced its intent to launch artificial satellites.

This was the beginning of the so-called “space race,” a competition between the two Cold War adversaries to see who could first pull off spaceflight capability.

Almost 65 years later, “nothing has changed and yet everything is different,” as Sartre wrote, not least because a new space race is on.

In July, Sir Richard Branson announced that Virgin Galactic will list on the New York stock exchange by the end of 2019. This means Virgin Galactic will become the first publicly traded company dedicated to human spaceflight. But that’s likely not the race he wants to win.

Virgin Galactic is vying with both SpaceX, founded by Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, and Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, to be the first business to provide us plebeians with the chance to take a commercial passenger flight to space.

Getting to space, though? That costs money.

The first step for Virgin Galactic is to merge with Social Capital Hedosophia Holdings Corp. (SCH), a special-purpose acquisition company created by venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, who will invest US$800 million in the company in return for a 49% holding.

The thing is: Social Capital Hedosophia is already listed on the New York stock exchange.

So, basically, Virgin Galactic will list on the stock exchange by entering into a reverse merger, of sorts; the private company (Virgin Galactic) will merge with the public (SCH).

If and when that deal is approved by SCH’s shareholders and other customary closing conditions are met, Palihapitiya will invest an extra US$100 million into the company.

This is expected to happen later this year, and according to Virgin Galactic, the combined firm will have an enterprise value of US$1.5 billion post-approval.

From there, the average punter will be able to buy stock in Virgin Galactic, making said punter a part owner of a space business, and helping said space business raise the money it needs to actually propel its customers into space. Or, as Richard Branson said, the listing will “open space to more investors and in doing so, open space to thousands of new astronauts.”

Will it help Virgin Galactic win the modern space race, though?

The company reportedly plans to start taking people to suborbital space in 2020. More than 600 people from 60 countries have spent an average of US$250,000 each to secure themselves a spot on one of the first flights. (Which, by the way, last about 90 minutes.)

Whether it hits its target remains to be seen, but the latest version of its SpaceshipTwo fleet, the VSS Unity, did carry three people into space back in February.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already made history. In 2012, its Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station.

SpaceX is set to launch its first cargo mission to Mars in 2022, and it aims to launch its first crewed mission to Mars in 2024. On this latter mission, Musk hopes to develop a base, from which he will one day build a “thriving city and eventually a self-sustaining civilization.”

As for Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos announced plans earlier this year to help NASA get astronauts back to the moon by 2024. Before that happens though, the company hopes to send a cargo lander to the surface of the moon in 2023.

Blue Origin had planned to launch crewed flights on its New Shepard suborbital vehicle this year, but it recently announced that mission was increasingly unlikely in 2019.

Three billionaires. Three companies. All willing to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Watch this “space.”

Words by
Bryna Howes Right Chevron

Bryna Howes is the Head of Content at Spaceship. She's equally obsessive about cinnamon donuts and scouring the web for great reads.

17.10.19 | The space race is on