Categories: Space Tourism

Virgin Galactic Wins FAA’s OK to Fly Space Passengers: Which Billionaire Will Go First?

Virgin Galactic says it’s received the Federal Aviation Administration’s go-ahead to fly customers on its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, marking a significant step in a commercial rollout that could also feature dueling space billionaires.

The FAA’s clearance came in the form of an update to Virgin Galactic’s five-year-old commercial space transportation operator license, the company said in a news release. The upgrade was based on an analysis of the results from Virgin Galactic’s most recent suborbital test flight, conducted in May at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

During that flight, two test pilots guided the rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity beyond the 50-mile mark that the FAA considers the boundary of outer space. (That’s lower than the internationally accepted boundary of 100 kilometers or 62 miles, known as the Karman Line.)

“The flight performed flawlessly, and the results demonstrate the safety and elegance of our flight system,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said. “Today’s approval by the FAA of our full commercial launch license, in conjunction with the success of our May 22 test flight, give us confidence as we proceed toward our first fully crewed test flight this summer.”

Months ago, Colglazier said that four Virgin Galactic employees would join two test pilots on that flight — and that Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, would go on the test flight after that. But that was before Amazon’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, said he planned to ride Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceship on July 20.

After Bezos’ announcement, Parabolic Arc quoted unnamed sources as saying that Branson was looking into the possibility of taking a suborbital space ride on VSS Unity during the Fourth of July weekend. Both Branson and Bezos are fiercely competitive, so the report seemed plausible.

The realities of getting the SpaceShipTwo launch system ready for the next test flight suggest that Virgin Galactic would be hard-pressed to make a July 4 launch date. But it’s conceivable that Branson could have the schedule shuffled and board the rocket plane for the next test flight in advance of July 20.

In a CNBC interview, Colglazier noted that “we have not announced either the date nor the people” who would be on board for the upcoming flight. “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,” he said.

Virgin Galactic’s share price jumped nearly 39% during today’s trading session in response to the good news about the FAA license, to $55.91 per share, and the price continued to rise in after-hours trading.

In addition to the two flights planned for the summer-to-fall time frame, Virgin Galactic has scheduled a final test flight that would have Italian Air Force personnel on board. Commercial service would begin in earnest next year.

About 600 customers have put down as much as $250,000 for a suborbital spaceflight reservation, and the price is sure to go up when Virgin Galactic reopens its ticket window.

Meanwhile, Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is continuing preparations for the first crewed flight of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Two weeks ago, a yet-to-be-identified buyer put in a winning bid of $28 million (plus a buyer’s premium) to accompany Bezos and his brother Mark on the flight. Blue Origin says it will soon announce the identity of the auction winner as well as a fourth crew member.

Lead image: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity rocket plane soars high during a test flight in May. Source: Virgin Galactic

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of MSNBC.com and NBC News Digital, and the author of "The Case for Pluto." He's based in Seattle, but the cosmos is his home.

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