Sir Richard Branson has been granted the permission he requires to fly paying customers to the edge of space in his Virgin Galactic rocket plane. The US Federal Aviation Administration granted the approval on Friday. It updates an existing licence that previously only allowed Sir Richard’s company to conduct test flights.
The UK entrepreneur has 600 people lined up to ride to a height of 90 kilometers, experience weightlessness, and see the curvature of the Earth. These are people who have all made deposits. The would-be “astronauts” are mostly super-rich, with a few movie and music stars thrown in for good measure.
Virgin Galactic will launch them from a dedicated spaceport in the American desert of New Mexico. The FAA’s license upgrade comes after a successful test flight for the plane, known as Unity, on May 22.
The information gathered on that flight satisfied the federal agency that all outstanding technical development milestones had been met.
“We’re incredibly pleased with the results of our most recent test flight, which achieved our stated flight test objectives,” said Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier.
“The flight went off without a hitch, and the results show how safe and elegant our flight system is. The FAA’s approval of our full commercial launch license today, combined with the success of our 22 May test flight, gives us confidence as we prepare for our first fully crewed test flight this summer.”
Virgin Galactic has previously set out a schedule for this year, as it continues to shape the type of service it intends to provide to its commercial customers.
Four employees from the company would board Unity (along with the two pilots) for the next flight to get a feel for the experience that future ticketed passengers will have. Following that, Sir Richard is expected to fly to the edge of space as a demonstration of readiness for commercial service.
The company is expected to begin earning revenue from carrying people on the following mission, though this is a mission that has been blocked booked by the Italian Air Force, which will place several payload specialists aboard Unity to supervise a number of microgravity experiments. Sir Richard had been rumored to move up his flight to July 4, earning him astronaut credentials ahead of Jeff Bezos. The Amazon.com founder has his own rocket system, which he plans to ride to the edge of space on July 20.
On Friday, a Virgin Galactic spokesperson stated that the 4 July rumor was just that: rumor. Flight schedules for this summer have yet to be determined.
Sir Richard’s journey to realize his spaceflight ambitions has been difficult.
He first announced the concept of passenger access to space via rocket plane in 2004, with the first services scheduled to begin in 2007. However, developing the chosen technology has proven to be far more difficult than the businessman anticipated.
He is, however, on the verge of delivering. The license approval on Friday is a yes.
Virgin Galactic isn’t the only company attempting to fulfill the dreams of aspiring astronauts.
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, stated in September that the company plans to fly a Japanese billionaire around the moon in 2023 aboard its Big Falcon spaceship. And Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, plans to charge customers $200,000 to $300,000 for brief suborbital flights aboard its New Shepard spacecraft this year. Garriott predicted that Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin would have plenty of customers for many years to come. “The real question after the first few hundreds of flyers is sustainability,” he added. “I do have price elasticity concerns once the price reaches hundreds of thousands of dollars.”