Virgin Galactic Cleared by FAA to Fly Space Tourists—Is Richard Branson the First?

Sir Richard Branson gives a thumbs up from a seat during the unveiling of a scale model of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 at a news conference. DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images

Virgin Galactic announced Friday it has obtained the license from the Federal Aviation Administration to carry commercial passengers on future suborbital spaceflights, meaning that the company could send its 70-year-old founder, Richard Branson, to space anytime now.

The FAA clearance is a major milestone for Virgin Galactic, which originally planned to start commercial service in mid-2020 but had to revise the timetable multiple times due to testing setbacks. Company shares popped 20 percent in pre-trading Friday morning on the news.

The FAA had previously granted a launch license for Virgin Galactic to conduct spaceflights with “crew members” only. To date, five Virgin employees, including the chief astronaut trainer Beth Moses and four pilots, have flown aboard the company’s VSS Unity vehicle to suborbital altitudes during test flights. The new license allows Virgin to carry what the FAA calls “spaceflight participants,” or paying customers.

Virgin has said multiple times that its top priority after clearing regulatory hurdles is to fly Branson to space. The big question now is when.

The company said Friday it has three more tests scheduled before the first commercial flight takes off.

“I know there’s a lot of interest and speculation out there but we have not announced either the date or the people that would be on those” upcoming flights, Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier told CNBC. “We approach this very methodically, with safety as the first consideration, and when we have all those boxes checked and all the steps in place—that’s when we can move forward and announce.”

Earlier this month, the space news blog Parabolic Arc reported that Virgin Galactic is coordinating a flight for the July 4 weekend with Branson on board. The rumor came days after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that he would fly on Blue Origin’s maiden spaceflight on July 20. The two space entrepreneurs are now effectively in a race to be the first billionaire going to space on spacecraft made by their own companies.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin offer very similar space travel packages that fly passengers to an altitude of about 80 kilometers (50 miles), which divides Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. Virgin’s spaceflight costs $250,000 per seat. The company has said it has more than 600 reservations. Blue Origin hasn’t announced the official ticket price yet. A seat on its maiden crewed flight was recently sold for $28 million in an auction. The winner will fly along with Bezos, his brother, and an unnamed fourth passenger.

Virgin Galactic Cleared by FAA to Fly Space Tourists—Is Richard Branson the First?