The suborbital space company is going orbital… kind of
Richard Branson’s space tourism venture, Virgin Galactic, will start coordinating private astronaut trips to the International Space Station for NASA — a new partnership aimed at increasing commercial use of the space agency’s orbiting outpost.
Thanks to a new Space Act Agreement with NASA, Virgin Galactic is tasked with putting together a “new private orbital astronaut readiness program,” for the agency. That means finding companies or organizations with an interest in sending people to the space station — for whatever reason — and then finding the right transportation to get them up there. Virgin Galactic will also be responsible for coordinating the necessary resources, both in space and on the ground, to make these trips successful.
It’s a similar mission to that of Space Adventures, a space tourism company that has put together trips to space for wealthy tourists. However, Virgin Galactic says it’s looking for a wide variety of customers, beyond the ones who just want a fun trip to space. “This is not just for potentially private space travelers, but could also be for researchers or even government researchers,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s CEO, tells The Verge, noting that people from all over the world could fly through this program.
This new focus on orbital spaceflight may seem odd for Virgin Galactic, which has been mostly focused on suborbital spaceflight for the last decade and a half. Virgin Galactic’s main business revolves around sending paying customers to the edge of space and back on the company’s rocket-powered spaceplane, VSS Unity. The passenger vehicle is designed to take off in midair after deploying from underneath the wing of a carrier aircraft. It climbs to a height of about 55 miles, giving any prospective passengers a short taste of weightlessness, before gliding back to Earth and landing on a runway.
Virgin Galactic has yet to begin commercial operations of its space tourism business, and it has only sent five people to space on two separate test flights. But the company argues that its experience so far makes it qualified to run this kind of program for NASA. Additionally, many of the people who work at Virgin Galactic have experience on past human spaceflight programs at NASA. “We actually have grown on a lot of that experience to build the suborbital program in the first place,” Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic’s president who worked as the launch integration manager for the Space Shuttle Program, tells The Verge. “It’s obviously a reduced down version, and it’s a little more simplified — you’re not going for multiple days. But a lot of the philosophies are the same. A lot of the rationale is the same.”
Virgin Galactic is developing an astronaut training program for its future customers who will fly on the company’s spaceplane out of Spaceport America in New Mexico. And through this new agreement, Virgin Galactic will draw on that experience and develop another training program for the customers it finds for NASA. Though that program will be tailored to prepare people for orbit and how to use the space station.
The new training program may entail riding on Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane, providing customers with some experience of space and weightlessness before they head to orbit for a longer stay. The company’s spaceplane also pulls extra Gs when it ascends to space, as do rockets taking off to orbit. Experiencing that firsthand could also be valuable for training, according to the company. Virgin Galactic says prospective astronauts will also use some of the company’s facilities at Spaceport America in New Mexico to prepare for their journeys.
“We want to put the right package around it, so it’s not just ‘Go to a class and listen to a PowerPoint for three hours,’” says Moses. “How do you make that an engaging and enjoyable experience that you’re going to want to be able to do?”
NASA says it will ultimately review the plan that Virgin Galactic puts together. “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 in a statement to The Verge. “Virgin Galactic’s plans to develop a new private orbital astronaut readiness program directly support NASA’s broad strategy to facilitate the commercialization of low-Earth orbit by U.S. entities.”
This news comes after NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine also announced plans to fly NASA astronauts on suborbital vehicles, like Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane and rival Blue Origin’s tourist rocket. Bridenstine didn’t provide much detail on that, saying those plans would come out sometime this week.
The partnership also means that Virgin Galactic will take on a new role as a broker, procuring customers, resources, and transportation to make these trips possible. Right now, the company has a handful of new transportation options, geared toward flying people to orbit. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon just sent its first two passengers to the ISS and should start regularly flying people to and from orbit later this year. Boeing is also developing a crew capsule called the CST-100 Starliner to take people to orbit, though the vehicle likely won’t fly its first passengers until next year at the earliest. Each seat on the Crew Dragon runs a little less than $60 million, while a seat on the Starliner costs around $90 million.
Meanwhile, there is a third non-American option for getting to orbit: Russia’s Soyuz capsule, which has been the sole method for getting astronauts to and from the space station since NASA’s Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. Historically, NASA has paid about $80 million for one seat on the Soyuz.
Though these are the only three options for getting humans to the International Space Station, Virgin Galactic would not comment on which vehicles are being considered for flights. However, Moses said the training program that the company develops will have to be tailored, depending on which capsules the people take to space. SpaceX, for instance, has developed various hardware at its facilities in Hawthorne, California, to simulate what it’s like to fly on the Crew Dragon, which could come in handy for training.
Virgin Galactic says it’s in preliminary discussions with prospective customers interested in sending people to the space station for a variety of different reasons — from commercial purposes to research. The company is also looking at a way to train customers for how they’ll use the space station when they’re up there, depending on the reason for their visit. “What you’re going to do while you’re there is the other big piece we’re really looking forward to sinking our teeth into,” Moses says. “How to prepare you while you’re there and then support you once you’re on station.”
This new program feeds into a larger goal for NASA of opening up the International Space Station to more commercial pursuits. For decades, the ISS has mainly been a place for government and academic research, but the space agency announced last year that it will allow companies access to the ISS for commercial purposes, such as filming ads or movies, and even allow these companies to send their own private astronauts to the station. So far, a company called Axiom, aimed at building a private space station, announced plans to send its own representatives to the ISS via a Crew Dragon capsule late next year.
“The exciting thing here is that this is sort of another step towards opening up low Earth orbit to a diverse renaissance of activity, and we’re happy to be a part of it,” says Whitesides.