Owning Virgin Galactic (NYSE:SPCE) in 2020 was a good time. The market rebound from the March 2020 lows was led by growth stocks. A burst of new technology and companies going public via SPAC carried that momentum into 2021, and Virgin Galactic rode the wave with the best of them. But times have changed.

The company has lost over half its value in just two months and is down nearly two-thirds from its all-time high. That high came on Feb. 11, right before a highly anticipated test flight was delayed due to electromagnetic interference (EMI). It's been a long way down from there, but there's an end in sight. Let's break down the deadlines that Virgin Galactic needs to hit over the next few years so it can potentially stop the bleeding -- or risk bleeding out entirely. 

The VSS Imagine ship

A close-up look at VSS Imagine, the first SpaceShip III in the Virgin Galactic Fleet 04. Image source: Virgin Galactic.

The focus on VSS Unity 

Most of the volatility affecting Virgin Galactic's stock has to do with delays in final tests for VSS Unity. Before we get into that, it's worth understanding the difference between motherships and spaceships. Virgin Galactic has one of each. The WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve is the mothership that transports the SpaceShip II VSS Unity to its launch altitude.

VSS Unity was released in 2016 and has accomplished some pretty impressive feats, including breaking through Mach 3 in February 2019. However, carrying passengers safely day in and day out with a flawless safety record is quite another story.

The spaceship was originally forecasted to take founder Richard Branson into space in early 2021. If successful, the company could then begin accepting passengers and earning revenue. But first, it needed to complete three flight tests, the first of which was scheduled for Dec. 12, 2020. However, it failed and was rescheduled for the infamous Feb. 13 before being rescheduled again for sometime in May. 

Here's a look at Virgin Galactic's timeline:

Date

Event

Dec. 12, 2020

VSS Unity flight test 1/3 failed

Feb. 13, 2021

VSS Unity flight test 1/3 delayed till May

March 30, 2021

Announced VSS Imagine and VSS Inspire, two new SpaceShip III aircraft

Spring 2021

VSS Imagine commences ground testing, manufacturing progresses on VSS Inspire

May 2021

VSS Unity flight test 1/3

Summer 2021

VSS Imagine commences glide flights

Summer 2021

VSS Unity flight test 2/3 (full cabin of mission specialists and two pilots on board)

Summer 2021

VSS Unity final flight test (Richard Branson demonstrates private astronaut experience)

September to December 2021

Four-month analysis and refurbishment period for VMS Eve and VSS Unity

Early 2022

VSS Unity takes private astronauts into space

Early 2022

VSS Imagine completes flight testing

Data source: Virgin Galactic. Table by author. 

Fleet readiness 

From the timeline, it's clear to see there's a lot happening all at once. While preparing VSS Unity for commercial service, Virgin Galactic is already building the next-generation SpaceShip III line. It announced the first two SpaceShip III aircraft, VSS Imagine and VSS Inspire, in late March. Its only existing mothership, VMS Eve, can take both SpaceShip II and III aircraft. However, Virgin Galactic plans to build a new line of motherships for its SpaceShip IV "Delta Class" line, which is basically all theory at this point. That completes phase one: Fleet readiness.

Fleet expansion 

Phase two is fleet expansion. Once Virgin Galactic builds its new models and gets them fit to fly customers into space, it plans to transition "from an R&D phase to a manufacturing phase that will allow the business to scale over time."

It's hard to pinpoint when this pivot will happen, but my best guess would be that the company takes what it learns from the SpaceShip III line and then scales SpaceShip IV Delta Class along with the new mothership model. 

SPCE Chart

SPCE data by YCharts

Boom or bust

What follows is a snowball effect. Staying on schedule would allow Virgin Galactic to burn less cash, gain trust from investors, and raise more money (if needed). It would also mean gaining credibility from customers and could lead to more preorders. On the flip side, missing deadlines means more cash burn, a longer path to profitability, and likely downward pressure on the stock price (making it harder to raise money by issuing stock), and could even lead to bankruptcy.

Perception is everything for growth stocks like Virgin Galactic. It seems like a distant memory, but Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) was in a similar position just a few years ago. Virgin Galactic is by no means Tesla. But Tesla had a reputation for missing deadlines and burning cash that infuriated Wall Street and crippled its market cap down around $30 billion in June of 2019.

It was a precarious position because Tesla would either have to borrow money at a high interest rate or dilute its stock for a bargain-bin price. Tesla got through it, and the rest is history. Love it or hate it, the company is worth over $720 billion today and the comeback is incredible.

VMS Eve and VSS Unity in flight.

VMS Eve and VSS Unity in flight. Image source: Virgin Galactic.

What to watch

Virgin Galactic's May test flight is a big deal. A successful launch should be met with optimism. However, consistency is key. Equally important are the company's summer deadlines and subsequent commercial launch in early 2022. Investors should monitor these targets as well as any adjustments the company makes to future goals. Wall Street is sour on Virgin Galactic but could quickly turn sweet if the space stock can keep pace with its new schedule.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.