Virgin Galactic has acquired full interest in The SpaceShip Company, previously a joint venture of Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites. A brief press release appeared late yesterday afternoon:
Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline, today announced that it has taken 100% ownership of its sister company, The Spaceship Company (TSC), by acquiring the 30% stake held by Scaled Composites (Scaled) since TSC’s formation under a joint venture with Virgin Galactic.
This acquisition, details of which are not being disclosed, marks the successful completion of a long-term strategy and signifies the end of the first phase of TSC’s development. During this development phase, TSC completed the build out of manufacturing and assembly facilities in Mojave, CA, established a specialized workforce and transitioned necessary assets from Scaled in order to begin building Virgin Galactic’s commercial fleet of WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft and SpaceShipTwo (SS2) manned sub-orbital spacecraft. These vehicles will be utilized for Virgin Galactic’s planned spaceline operations which will be based at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.
The completion of the acquisition comes as Virgin Galactic and Scaled begin to plan the handover of the SS2 development program to Virgin Galactic, with Scaled remaining fully committed to the final portion of the WK2 and SS2 test flight programs prior to Virgin Galactic commencing commercial operations.
The timing of this press release is a bit interesting. A press release that appears after close of business on Friday afternoon often indicates news that a company wants to bury. If Virgin Galactic wanted to bury this news, this weekend would certainly be a good time to do it. By the time reporters return to the office on Monday, SpaceX will be dominating the commercial-space headlines and no one will pay much attention to this story.
The fact that Scaled Composites will not be involved in SpaceShip Two production, after the initial prototypes, is both surprising and unsurprising. Scaled is a prototype house and has never done aircraft production in the past. Still, it has more experience in that area than Virgin does.
There have been rumors of strained relations between Virgin and Scaled ever since Stratolaunch was announced in December 2011. Scaled Composites is a partner in the Stratolaunch project, which is backed by Paul Allen. Although Stratolaunch does not compete with Virgin Galactic in payload type or class, it does use a similar air-launch technology (on a much larger scale). Rumors indicate this may have led to disputes over intellectual property.
Between Stratolaunch and The SpaceShip Company, there’s a lot of construction going on at Mojave.
This announcement opens up a question over how many companies will ultimately be flying SpaceShip Two. In the past, Virgin Galactic indicated that The SpaceShip Company would build SpaceShip Two and White Knight Two production vehicles for Virgin Galactic and for other operators in the future. Now that The SpaceShip Company is fully owned by Virgin Galactic, will Virgin still be willing to sell vehicles to other operators, or will it want to keep SpaceShip Two for itself?
If Virgin Galactic decides to keep SpaceShip Two as an exclusive, that might help other companies such as XCOR Aerospace, which plans to aggressively market its Lynx spacecraft to other operators under wet-lease agreements.