Virgin Galactic says it has received Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly customers with its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, a significant step in a commercial launch that could include dueling space billionaires.
The FAA’s clearance came in the form of an update to Virgin Galactic’s five-year-old commercial space transportation license, the company said in a press release. The upgrade was based on an analysis of the results of Virgin Galactic’s most recent suborbital test flight, which was conducted at Spaceport America in New Mexico in May.
During that flight, two test pilots led the rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity past the 50-mile mark, which the FAA regards as the limit of space. (That’s lower than the internationally recognized 100 kilometers or 62 miles limit known as the Karman Line.)
“The flight went flawlessly and the results demonstrate the safety and elegance of our flight system,” said Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic. “Today’s approval of our full commercial take-off license by the FAA, coupled with the success of our test flight on May 22, gives us confidence that we will move on to our first fully manned test flight this summer.”
Months ago, Colglazier said four Virgin Galactic employees would meet two test pilots on the flight – and that Virgin Galactic billionaire founder Richard Branson would go on the test flight afterwards. But that was before Amazon’s billionaire founder Jeff Bezos said he was planning to ride Blue Origin’s suborbital spacecraft on July 20.
Following Bezos’ announcement, Parabolic Arc cited unnamed sources as saying that Branson is considering the possibility of suborbital space travel with VSS Unity on the weekend of July 4th. Both Branson and Bezos are highly competitive, so the report seemed plausible.
The reality of preparing the SpaceShipTwo launcher for the next test flight suggests Virgin Galactic would have a hard time scheduling a July 4th launch date. However, it is conceivable that Branson will change the schedule and get into the rocket plane for the next test flight before July 20.
In a CNBC interview, Colglazier stated that “we did not disclose the date or the people” who would be on board for the upcoming flight. “We are very methodical about this, certainly the first consideration, and when we have ticked all of these boxes and implemented all the steps, then we can move forward and announce,” he said.
Virgin Galactic’s share price rose nearly 39% to $ 55.91 per share during today’s trading session in response to the good news about the FAA license, and the price continued to rise in after-hours trading.
In addition to the two flights scheduled for the summer to autumn period, Virgin Galactic has planned a final test flight that would include Italian Air Force personnel. Commercial service would begin in earnest next year.
Approximately 600 customers have spent up to $ 250,000 on a suborbital space flight reservation, and the price is sure to go up when Virgin Galactic reopens its ticket window.
Meanwhile, Bezos’ space company Blue Origin is continuing preparations for the first manned flight of its suborbital spacecraft New Shepard on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Two weeks ago, a still-to-be-identified buyer made a final bid of $ 28 million (plus a buyer’s premium) to accompany Bezos and his brother Mark on the flight. Blue Origin says it will shortly announce the identity of the auction winner as well as a fourth crew member.
Mission: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity rocket plane soars during a test flight in May. Source: Virgin Galactic