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Investors surely had dreams of Virgin Galactic (NYSE:SPCE) stock going “to the moon” after Sir Richard Branson’s historic space flight last summer. They’ve been sorely disappointed. SPCE stock is down 80% since Branson became the first of the billionaire space company founders to take his own craft to outer space.

Virgin Galactic (SPCE) banner hanging on the New York Stock Exchange building to celebrate its IPO.

Source: Christopher Penler / Shutterstock.com

The July 11 flight was notable for more than that, however. The VSS Unity was the first that carried more than one passenger. Branson was joined by two pilots and three Virgin Galactic employees in the flight that brought the company a step closer to offering commercial space flight.

Press coverage was huge, as Branson managed to win the race against fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos. The Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) founder’s Blue Origin program rocketed Bezos into space just nine days after Branson’s flight.

With all the buzz around the flights, one might think SPCE stock would be the beneficiary. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

Problems Derail Growth

Virgin Galactic started encountering problems even before Branson made it into space. A New Yorker article details that the VSS Unity veered off course about a minute into its flight, with yellow and red warning lights flashing throughout the cockpit as the craft accelerated to Mach 3.

Fortunately for Branson and the three other crew members in the back, the pilots got the ship into space and landed safely. But data retrieved from Flightradar24 shows the vehicle flying outside its designated airspace. An F.A.A. spokesperson confirmed that Virgin Galactic “deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance” and that an “investigation is ongoing.”

The FAA grounded Virgin Galactic during the investigation and said the company failed to communicate the problem to regulators. It gave the company clearance to fly again in late September. For its part, Virgin Galactic said it would “expand the protected airspace for future flights” so it would have a “variety of possible flight trajectories.” It also said it would improve its communication with the FAA.

But that’s not all. Also in September, Virgin Galactic announced it would delay its first commercial space mission with the Italian Air Force thanks to a possible manufacturing defect that was found in a flight control system component.

Then, in October, the company announced it would push back the start of its commercial flights to the fourth quarter of 2022. It said the delay was necessary because it discovered that materials used in joints on the spacecraft showed a “reduction in strength” and required additional inspections.

SPCE Stock at a Glance

At this writing, SPCE stock is trading just over $10 per share. Its all-time high of $62.80, set in early February, is a distant memory. And shares are down 18% in the past two days alone after the company said it would raise $425 million to $500 million in debt  to “fund working capital, general and administrative matters and capital expenditures to accelerate the development of its spacecraft fleet in order to facilitate high-volume commercial service.”

Third-quarter earnings actually weren’t that bad. The company posted revenue for the second consecutive quarter, bringing in $2.6 million versus the $1.8 million analysts had expected. And while Virgin Galatic reported a net loss of $48 million, that was smaller than the $92 million net loss in the third quarter of 2020.

Virgin Galactic also said it ended Q3 with about $1 billion in cash, which includes cash and cash equivalents of $721 million.

The Bottom Line on SPCE Stock

The dream, of course, is commercial spaceflight. Virgin Galactic is selling shareholders on the idea of space tourism, or space flight for the masses. It’s an expensive dream. In August, the company started taking reservations at $450,000 a pop for 1,000 seats on future flights. At the end of the third quarter, about 700 had been sold.

The trick, of course, is to sell the public (as well as passengers and federal regulators) on the safety of the Virgin Galactic vehicles. SPCE stock can’t afford for the company to have missteps or cut corners on passenger safety.

At the same time, the specter of competition is very real. Bezos’ Blue Origin arguably has as much potential – or more – than Virgin Galactic. It’s easy to see a scenario where SPCE stock gets left behind.

Either way, Virgin Galactic is faltering right now and there’s no clear indication that it will rebound soon. Trade with caution.

On the date of publication, Patrick Sanders did not have (either directly or indirectly) any positions in the securities mentioned in this article. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, subject to the InvestorPlace.com Publishing Guidelines.

Patrick Sanders is a freelance writer and editor in Maryland, and from 2015 to 2019 was head of the investment advice section at U.S. News & World Report. Follow him on Twitter at @1patricksanders.

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