Virgin Galactic partners with NASA to develop private astronaut program

Company inks Space Act agreement for private orbital flights to International Space Station

Private space company Virgin Galactic will work with NASA to develop a private astronaut readiness program which could lead to paying customers flying to the International Space Station.

Virgin Galactic, a publicly-traded aerospace company, and NASA’s Johnson Space Center entered a Space Act agreement Monday that will allow the private company to manage the development of the private astronaut program from end-to-end, according to a news release.

The step further establishes NASA’s plans to commercialize the space station.

According to NASA Administrator Jim Bridentine, the spaceflight industry is a $400 billion market and opening it up to paying customers could expand the market to $1 trillion.

Under the program, Virgin Galactic will identify candidates interested in purchasing private astronaut missions to the ISS, obtain transportation to the station and provide on-orbit and ground resources.

“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 and other agencies,” George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic said in a statement. “Based on the unsurpassed levels of spaceflight customer commitments we have secured to date, 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.”

Virgin Galactic has already taken down payments from individuals hoping to fly on the company’s space plane, SpaceShipTwo. More than 600 people have made reservations with Virgin Galactic for sub-orbital flights ranging between $200,000 and $250,000 per seat. Earlier this year the company began accepting refundable lower deposits of $1,000.

The agreement with NASA does not include details on how much it will cost to fly to the ISS or on what spacecraft. Currently, SpaceX is the only private company that has successfully flown humans to orbit as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Boeing is also testing its spacecraft Starliner to launch NASA astronauts to the ISS and back. The company will attempt a repeat of an uncrewed orbital flight test to the space station later this year after a botched first test in December.

Both Boeing and SpaceX officials have said they would be open to flying private astronauts for a hefty price tag.

The news release from Virgin Galactic did not provide a timeline for when private astronauts could begin training to fly to the space station.

Founded in 2004, Virgin Galactic aims to be the first commercial company to fly paying customers on sub-orbital flights. The company recently moved its headquarters and spaceport from California to New Mexico.