Liftoff? US allows Virgin Galactic to take paying passengers into space

Billionaire space race gathers pace as Sir Richard Branson’s company gets FAA blessing for full commercial launch

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has made another small leap in the billionaire space race after US authorities gave it permission to take paying customers to space.

Its licence was enhanced on Friday by the US Federal Aviation Administration to allow a full commercial launch, after a successful test flight last month.

Branson may yet be on board the first passenger flight, which according to some reports could be as early as 4 July from the New Mexico spaceport, although the firm said this was speculation.

Three more test flights are planned after the 22 May test, where the SpaceShipTwo craft reached space at an altitude of 55.5 miles and a speed of Mach 3, or more than 2,300 miles an hour.

A spokeswoman for Virgin Galactic said: “As previously announced, we expect to complete the final test flights this summer through to early fall [autumn]. At this time, we have not determined the date of our next flight.”

Michael Colglazier, chief executive officer of Virgin Galactic, said: “We’re incredibly pleased with the results of our most recent test flight, which achieved our stated flight test objectives. The flight performed flawlessly and the results demonstrate the safety and elegance of our flight system.

What is Virgin Galactic?

Sir Richard Branson unveiled his ambition to ferry tourists into outer space and back in 2004, initially proposing a maiden voyage by 2009.

More than a decade later, and after several false dawns when the first trip appeared tantalisingly close, would-be private astronauts are still waiting to climb on board a Virgin Galactic flight.

More than 600 have already put down deposits for the pleasure of suborbital space flight, with tickets selling for $250,000 (£202,000).

Buyers will have to travel from Spaceport America in New Mexico, the home of the SpaceShipTwo craft.

The rocket-powered plane will be launched from the air by another plane, Scaled Composites Model 348 White Knight Two, reaching 68 miles above the Earth, where passengers will experience weightlessness before returning via a conventional runway landing.

The project suffered a setback in 2014 when a version of SpaceShipTwo disintegrated mid-air owing to what an investigation found was a combination of pilot error and inadequate safety procedures. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed, while pilot Peter Siebold was seriously injured.

Branson floated Virgin Galactic on the stock market last year, securing $450m investment from the former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya.

After a successful test flight in May 2021, US authorities have now given the company permission to take paying customers to space.

“Today’s approval by the FAA of our full commercial launch licence, 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.”

The FAA blessing came as Branson vies with two of the world’s three richest men, the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, and Tesla’s boss, Elon Musk, in developing space flight. Bezos recently announced he would be on board the first passenger flight of the New Shepard spacecraft, built by his company Blue Origin, on 20 July.

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The licence puts Branson within reach of finally realising the ambition of the Virgin Galactic firm he founded back in 2004, which has booked numerous celebrities and super-rich passengers on board eventual space flights, at about $200,000 (£144,000) a ticket.

The enterprise has been marked by numerous setbacks, not least two fatal accidents in 2007 and 2014, which killed three engineers and a test pilot.

Virgin Galactic became a publicly traded company in 2019, while Branson has recently sold hundreds of millions of dollars of shares to help prop up his struggling Virgin Atlantic airline, as it grounded its fleets and laid off staff because of the Covid pandemic.

• This article was amended on 27 June 2021. A previous version incorrectly converted $200,000 to “£14,400”.


Gwyn Topham

The GuardianTramp

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