Virgin Galactic finally has the federal government’s approval to start launching customers into space from New Mexico.
Richard Branson’s rocket-ship company announced the Federal Aviation Administration’s updated license on Friday. It’s the final hurdle in Virgin Galactic’s yearslong effort to send paying passengers on short space jaunts. Virgin Galactic shares shot up 36% on news of the FAA’s approval, hovering around $55 by late morning.
The company is working toward three more space test flights, with one scheduled for this summer. The original plans called for Branson to board a test flight later this year, with flights for paying customers becoming available next year.
Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos plans to ride his own rocket into space July 20 from Texas.
“I appreciate that there is a lot of speculation” over whether Branson will try to beat Bezos into space, company spokeswoman Valerija Cymbal said in an email. “But we don’t have any announcements about Virgin Galactic’s future flight plans at this time.”
Unlike Blue Origin’s and SpaceX’s capsules which are launched from the ground by reusable rockets, Virgin Galactic uses a winged spacecraft that launches from the belly of an airplane. It’s reached space three times since 2018 with two pilots in the cockpit. The second trip carried a third company employee.
Green light follows third successful spaceflight
Virgin Galactic completed itsinto space in May in New Mexico. The spacecraft, named VSS Unity, carried astronauts CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay and was brought up to an altitude of 55.45 miles by aircraft VMS Eve. It was piloted by Kelly Latimer and Michael Masucci. The trip made Sturckow the first person to ever have flown to space from three different states and made New Mexico the third U.S. state to launch humans into outer space.
It was the first completed flight in two years for Virgin Galactic, which aspires to become the first-ever commercial space line. A review of the flight showed that the trip went smoothly and paved the way for the necessary FAA permission.
“Today’s approval by the FAA of our full commercial launch license, in conjunction with the success of our May 22 test flight, give us confidence as we proceed toward our first fully crewed test flight this summer,” chief executive officer Michael Colglazier said in a statement
More than 600 people have already reserved a ride to space. Tickets initially cost $250,000, but the price is expected to go up once Virgin Galactic starts accepting reservations again.
Blue Origin has yet to sell tickets to the public or indicate how much they will cost. Bezos will be accompanied by his brother and two other passengers on his July 20 trip, on the 52nd anniversary of the first human moon landing.
Tori B. Powell contributed to this report.