Virgin Galactic will help NASA serve private orbital astronauts
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Charles Simonyi
Seattle software billionaire Charles Simonyi took two privately funded trips to the International Space Station, in 2007 and 2009, with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft serving as his transport. (NASA photo)

Virgin Galactic says it has signed an agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas to develop a new readiness program for private-sector astronauts heading to the International Space Station.

Theoretically, such astronauts could include the likes of Tom Cruise, who is looking into making a movie at the space station, according to NASA. “I’m all for that,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said last month. “We’re going to do what we can to make that happen.”

Virgin Galactic declined to comment on which customers or companies it might be partnering with, but the company said the newly established program would identify candidates interested in purchasing a ride to the space station, procure their transportation to orbit, and arrange for on-orbit resources as well as resources on the ground.

Some elements of the orbital training program would make use of Spaceport America in New Mexico, Virgin Galactic’s base for commercial space operations. The company is already gearing up to take customers on suborbital space rides from Spaceport America, using its air-launched SpaceShipTwo rocket plane. Part of the preparation for an orbital trip could involve taking a suborbital trip on SpaceShipTwo.

“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,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said today in a news release.

Virgin Galactic said private astronaut experiences could run the gamut from purely personal expeditions, to profit-making commercial ventures, to government-enabled research missions.

NASA opened the door to such arrangements last year when it laid out a set of policies for commercial activities on the space station. The space agency said it would allow up to two private-astronaut missions per year, with each mission lasting up to 30 days. Multiple private astronauts could fly on each mission.

NASA would have to be reimbursed for the resources used in orbit, at an estimated cost of $35,000 a day. And that’s not including launch costs — which could exceed $50 million, based on current prices.

SpaceShipTwo isn’t high-powered enough to make an orbital trip, which suggests that Virgin Galactic would have to procure rides from other companies such as SpaceX or Boeing. SpaceX has already sent NASA astronauts to the station using its Crew Dragon spaceship, and Boeing is expected to follow suit next year with its CST-100 Starliner capsule.

For what it’s worth, Boeingpledged to work together in a strategic partnership to broaden commercial space access.

Virgin Galactic already flies NASA scientific payloads on SpaceShipTwo’s suborbital test flights for a fee, and last month the company announced an agreement with NASA to work together on rocket-powered supersonic travel. Getting into the market for privately funded orbital spaceflight would be a new frontier for the company, which was founded in 2004 by British billionaire Richard Branson.

Deep-pocketed travelers have been taking privately funded trips to the space station since California investment adviser Dennis Tito did it in 2001. Seattle software billionaire Charles Simonyi liked his 2007 space odyssey so well that he bought another trip in 2009. In all, seven private astronauts have visited the space station, but all of them bought their rides from the Russians with Virginia-based Space Adventures acting as the intermediary.

In February, Space Adventures said it made a deal with SpaceX to send private citizens on free-flying orbital trips that wouldn’t involve a space station stopover. Space Adventures reportedly has a separate deal with the Russians to launch two private astronauts to the space station, perhaps next year.

In March, Texas-based Axiom Space announced that it signed a contract with SpaceX to fly three private astronauts and an Axiom-trained commander to the space station on a Crew Dragon as soon as next year.

It’s not yet clear whether all those companies are Virgin Galactic’s rivals or partners in the market for private orbital astronaut services. But at least one thing is clear: The ecosystem for commercial space travel is evolving at an increasingly rapid rate.

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