Richard Branson, founder and chairman of space tourism venture Virgin Galactic, says he is temporarily suspending his partnership with Saudi Arabia, which means the company may lose its promised $1 billion investment. The decision is directly related to questions surrounding Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, who went missing after stepping inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey on October 2nd.
Last year, the Virgin Group announced that Virgin Galactic and its spinoff companies, The Spaceship Company and Virgin Orbit, would receive an investment of $1 billion from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. The money was meant to help further the development and testing of Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane, which is meant to take tourists into space for brief periods of weightlessness, as well as Virgin Orbit’s rocket, designed to deploy from the wing of a carrier airplane. There was even talk of using the money to help further Virgin’s dream of creating point-to-point travel — the concept of using rockets to quickly carry people to different places on the Earth. In exchange, Virgin might help with the creation of a “space-centric entertainment industry” in Saudi Arabia.
“I had high hopes for the current government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and it is why I was delighted to accept two directorships in the tourism projects around the Red Sea,” Branson wrote in a blog post on Thursday.
However, tensions between the two partners have soured due to Khashoggi’s disappearance. Khashoggi, an outspoken Saudi critic and opinion writer, hasn’t been heard from since entering the Saudi Arabian consulate. It’s assumed that he was killed inside the consulate, and Turkish authorities reportedly have audio and video recordings that back up that theory, according to CNN. However, the Saudi Arabian government has staunchly denied any responsibility and claims that Khashoggi left the consulate that day.
Based on the uncertainty surrounding the incident, Branson has decided to part ways with Saudi Arabia for now. “What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi Government,” he wrote. Branson said his company has asked for more information from Saudi authorities about what happened. But until things are cleared up, discussions over the Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit investment have ceased.
In the meantime, the Virgin companies are still moving forward with their spaceflight plans. Since the end of 2016, Virgin Galactic has been testing its spaceplane, the VSS Unity, and Branson claims the vehicle will be able to reach space on an upcoming flight test in the next few weeks. Additionally, Virgin Orbit hopes to perform its first captive carry flights of its rocket, LauncherOne, during which the rocket will ride under the wing of its carrier plane for the first time but not be released. If that’s a success, then Virgin Orbit will conduct its first test launch of the rocket, deploying it and sending it to orbit.