Virgin Galactic has taken a giant leap towards space as shares in the billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism venture started trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
Public investors are now able to buy shares – under the stock market ticker symbol “SPCE” – in the human spaceflight company which is betting that enough wealthy tourists will pay the $250,000 (£195,000) ticket price to justify investments worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Virgin Galactic raised $450m through an unconventional merger with Social Capital Hedosophia, an investment vehicle run by former Facebook employee Chamath Palihapitiya. Existing Virgin Galactic shareholders, including Branson, will own about 59% of the new company, which will be known as Virgin Galactic Holdings.
The commercial space sector has been well developed for decades, mainly for telecommunications and surveillance satellites. However, space tourism has taken much longer, and has so far been driven by the personal ambitions of deep-pocketed billionaires rather than expectations of near-term profits.
Virgin Galactic is going up against SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk, the chief executive of electric carmaker Tesla, and Blue Origin, the company owned by the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, which aims to take people to the moon by 2024.
Virgin Galactic decided to list after trying to raise money privately, including talks with the government of Saudi Arabia, which were suspended after the state-sanctioned murder of Jamal Khasoggi, a journalist critical of the regime.
The company, which is led by the former Nasa chief of staff George Whitesides, has been developing its space vehicles in the Mojave desert in California, and has its main commercial operations in New Mexico.
Branson, whose various business interests have ranged from airlines and trains to bridalwear and cola, has repeatedly made optimistic predictions about Virgin Galactic’s schedule for taking people to space, but the company has also faced several setbacks, including a crash in 2014 which killed a test pilot.