VSS Unity will be released from the carrier aircraft VMS Eve during the launch of its third space flight on May 22, 2021.
Virgin Galactic announced Friday that the Federal Aviation Administration has granted the company the license it needs to fly passengers on future space flights, a major hurdle as the company completes development tests.
“The commercial license we held since 2016 remains in place, but is now approved to carry commercial passengers when we are ready,” Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, told CNBC. “That is of course an exciting milestone and a huge compliment to the team.”
While the FAA previously granted Virgin Galactic a launch license to conduct space flights, the license upgrade allows the company to fly what regulators call “spaceflight participants.” The company completed a 29-element verification and validation program for the FAA, and reached the FAA’s final two milestones with its most recent space test in May. Colglazier noted that the last two milestones were specific to the spacecraft’s flight control systems and inertial navigation systems.
Virgin Galactic’s stock rose as much as 30% in trading after the announcement. The stock surged above $ 50 after a tumultuous start to the year, with the stock climbing above $ 60 in February and then tumbling to a low of nearly $ 15 last month before rebounding.
Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut trainer, is the only non-pilot to fly on any of the company’s space flights. To date, five Virgin Galactic employees, including four pilots, have become FAA-recognized astronauts – as the US officially considers an altitude of 80 kilometers (or about 50 miles) to be the limit of space.
Virgin Galactic’s Unity spacecraft is expected to accommodate up to six passengers with the two pilots. The company has approximately 600 reservations for tickets on future flights priced between $ 200,000 and $ 250,000 each.
Next space TBD
After completing three space tests in the past two years, Virgin Galactic has three more space tests planned before development is completed. The company had previously announced that its next space flight would carry four passengers to test the spacecraft’s cabin, the second would fly founder Sir Richard Branson, and the third would carry members of the Italian Air Force for professional astronaut training.
Sir Richard Branson (left) and CEO Michael Colglazier celebrate the company’s third space test on May 22, 2021.
However, a report earlier this month from a blogger based in Mojave, Calif., Where Virgin Galactic makes its vehicles, said the company is considering reorganizing its flight schedule to launch Branson next weekend on July 4th. The report came shortly after Jeff Bezos announced that he would be flying on Blue Origin’s first passenger space flight, scheduled to take off on July 20 – suggesting that Branson might still try to personally defeat Bezos into space.
Colglazier said FAA approval means “the flight test program is now being shifted” to demonstrate “the cabin experience” of the spacecraft.
“I know there is a lot of interest and speculation, but we haven’t announced the date or the people who will be there,” said Colglazier. “We are very methodical about this, certainly the first consideration, and when we have ticked all of these boxes and determined all of the steps we can move forward and announce.”
Development delays have postponed the company’s promised start of commercial service from mid-2020 to early 2022.
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