Saudi Arabia plans to invest $1 billion in Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic business.
The billion-dollar agreement between Branson’s private space venture and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund will primarily fund Virgin’s space tourism program and will help accelerate the development of a new launch vehicle to send small satellites into orbit. The Saudi Public Investment Fund also has the option on a future investment of up to $480 million in coming years, according to Virgin’s press release.
The partnership means the fund will take a “significant” but minority stake in Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit and The Spaceship Company.
“This investment is a sign of confidence from the international investment community that our vision, our approach and our technology are the right path to commercialising space access,” Branson wrote in a blog post. “We are now just months away from Virgin Galactic sending people into space and Virgin Orbit placing satellites around the Earth.”
Branson also said the investment also typified the “positive progress of the larger societal transformation” being driven by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Prince is pushing a broad modernization of the desert kingdom’s society and economy, including a partial privatization of the world’s biggest oil producer Saudi Aramco and the $450 billion “NEOM” project to build a socially liberal and tech-focused economic zone on the country’s Red Sea Coast, far from its conservative heartlands in the Arabian peninsula.
Virgin touted the idea of creating a “space-centric entertainment industry” in Saudi Arabia in the future, which would tie in with the aims of the “NEOM” project. It didn’t elaborate on what that could entail, but Branson’s blog displays an artist’s rendering for some food for thought.
“This investment will enable us to develop the next generation of human spaceflight, more economic satellite launches and accelerate our program for transcontinental point-to-point space travel,” Branson wrote. The last of those points raises the possibility of direct competition between Branson and Elon Musk in using sub-orbital rockets to send passengers to various locations on earth.
Two of Virgin’s space programs are currently in important development stages: Virgin Galactic is performing glide tests of its spaceplane (the VSS Unity) and aims to send people into space by 2018. Orbit, a recently-formed spinoff dedicated to launching small satellites, aims to conduct the first tests of its LauncherOne rocket during the first half of next year.