NASA to Let Virgin Galactic Help Fly People to ISS as Private Astronauts

Virgin Galactic says it is teaming up with NASA to offer "private astronaut experiences" to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Richard Branson-founded space tourism company announced today it had signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA's Johnson Space Center to "encourage commercial participation" in orbital human spaceflight and train potential candidates.

The program, if approved by the federal agency, will identify people who are interested in purchasing private expeditions to the ISS, sort out how they should be transported there, and handle any "on-orbit" and ground resources for the future missions.

While exact plans are murky, Virgin Galactic said the experiences could include private citizens or government-enabled scientific research missions.

"There is greater demand for use of the ISS for scientific and technological research and development, commercial activity, and international collaboration," it tweeted.

The program will include "astronaut training packages" for the private passengers, likely to take advantage of Virgin Galactic's technology, including the "VSS Unity" space plane, which launches from a jet aircraft and sends customers to the edge of space.

The process would help private astronauts to get familiar with the environment of space, including G-forces and zero-G. Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic's HQ in New Mexico, will be used in the training program, the company said in a release.

"We are excited to partner with NASA on this private orbital spaceflight program, which will not only allow us to use our spaceflight platform, but also offer our space training infrastructure to NASA," said George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic.

"We are proud to share that insight in helping to grow another market for the new space economy. We want to bring the planetary perspective to many thousands of people."

Private astronaut experiences could range from private citizen expeditions to government-enabled scientific research missions.There is greater demand for use of the ISS for scientific and technological research and development, commercial activity, and international collaboration

— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) June 22, 2020

In a statement to The Verge, a NASA spokesperson said the plans proposed by Virgin Galactic will be reviewed before being made final. A project timescale is unknown.

"Under the agreement, NASA will conduct an assessment of the feasibility of Virgin Galactic's plan to develop a new private orbital astronaut readiness program to enable private astronaut missions to the International Space Station," NASA said.

The spokesperson added: "Virgin Galactic's plans... directly support NASA's broad strategy to facilitate the commercialization of low-Earth orbit by U.S. entities."

As reported by CNBC, Virgin Galactic shares jumped by 13 percent in premarket trading following the news of the agreement being made public.

The company has over 600 reservations for passengers to fly to space—with the tickets selling for up to $250,000 per person—but it has not started commercial services. In May, it announced that it was teaming up with NASA to work on "supersonic travel."

Virgin Galactic is intending to offer flights that include views of Earth from space and several minutes of weightlessness, launching from the New Mexico base.

It relies on a four-engine aircraft carrier known as WhiteKnightTwo to launch passengers onboard the VSS Unity, or SpaceShipTwo, from an altitude of about 50,000 feet.

SpaceShipTwo Unity flying free in New Mexico Airspace for the first time Virgin Galactic 2020