Richard Branson’s space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, just became the latest billionaire-run space company to score a NASA contract to fly private citizens into space.
The aerospace company announced Monday that it had signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the location of the agency’s astronaut training program, to develop a “private orbital astronaut readiness program,” organizing commercial flights to the International Space Station (ISS).
Shares of Virgin Galactic jumped 15 percent Monday morning on the news.
Virgin Galactic doesn’t have a spaceship capable of sending humans to the ISS, like SpaceX’s Dragon Crew. Instead, it will function more like a travel agent for NASA’s future space vacation packages.
Under the agreement, Virgin Galactic is tasked with finding customers who are interested in flying to ISS, arranging suitable ground and in-space transportation, and, most importantly, providing proper training for the trip—much like how the company prepares paying customers for its own suborbital space flight experience.
Virgin Galactic’s main business is flying amateur astronauts to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, up to 55 miles above the ground, in its supersonic spaceplane, VSS Unity, for $250,000 per seat. The suborbital spacecraft is in its final stage of testing and is expected to fly the first passenger, possibly Richard Branson himself, as soon as this year.
“Based on the unsurpassed levels of spaceflight customer commitments we have secured to date, we are proud to share that insight in helping to grow another market for the new space economy,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in a statement on Monday.
Virgin Galactic’s own tourism package has secured about 600 reservations. It hopes the NASA partnership could help spread the company’s name to a larger audience in a more serious space game: orbital and above.
“We want to bring the planetary perspective to many thousands of people,” Whitesides said. Virgin Galactic noted that the NASA program isn’t limited to leisure travelers, but serves as a “pathfinder for the ISS National Laboratory by demonstrating additional involvement by the commercial sector in human spaceflight, and may lead to commercial participants conducting research and other commercial activities aboard the ISS.”
Last month, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon system successfully sent two NASA astronauts to the ISS in what marked the first manned ISS flight using a commercially developed spacecraft. Boeing is building a similar orbital spacecraft called Starliner under a NASA contract, although passenger tests won’t start until at least 2021. Until then, the only other option to send humans to the ISS is through Russia’s Soyuz capsule.
Virgin Galactic’s primary competitor in commercial suborbital flights, Blue Origin, is also building big projects for NASA, including a moon-landing vehicle. The space exploration startup, owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has signed three NASA contracts as part of the agency’s mission to bring humans back to the moon by 2024.