Richard Branson's space tourism company Virgin Galactic will begin coordinating private astronaut trips to the International Space Station for NASA – a new partnership that aims to increase 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 astronaut readiness program for private orbitals" for the agency. That means finding companies or organizations interested in sending people to the space station for whatever reason, and then finding the right transportation to get them there. Virgin Galactic will also be responsible for coordinating the necessary resources both in space and locally to make these trips a success.
It's a mission similar to Space Adventures, a space tourism company that has put space travel together for wealthy tourists. However, Virgin Galactic says they are looking for a variety of customers who don't just want a fun trip to space. "Not only is this for potentially private space travelers, it could also be for researchers or even government researchers," said George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, to The Verge, noting that people from all over the world could fly through this program.
"This is not just for potentially private space travelers, but could also be for researchers or even government researchers."
This new focus on orbital space may seem strange to Virgin Galactic, who has focused mainly on suborbital space for the past decade and a half. Virgin Galactic's core business is to send paying customers to the edge of space and back with the company's rocket-propelled spacecraft, VSS Unity. The car is designed to take off in the air after being deployed under the wing of a carrier aircraft. It rises to a height of approximately 55 miles and gives potential passengers a brief impression of weightlessness before sliding back to Earth and landing on a runway.
Virgin Galactic has not yet commenced commercial operations in its space tourism business and has only sent five people into space on two separate test flights. However, the company argues that based on its previous experience, it is qualified to run such a program for NASA. In addition, many of Virgin Galactic's employees have experience with previous manned space programs at NASA. "We actually gained a lot of this experience to build the suborbital program in the first place," said Mike Moses, president of Virgin Galactic, who was the manager for the launch integration of the space shuttle program, to The Verge. "It is obviously a reduced down version that is somewhat simplified. You will not work for several days." But many of the philosophies are the same. Many of the reasons are the same. "
Virgin Galactics spacecraft VSS Unity
Picture: Virgo Galactic
Virgin Galactic is developing an astronaut training program for its future customers who will fly the company's spacecraft from Spaceport America in New Mexico. With this new agreement, Virgin Galactic will leverage this experience and develop another training program for customers it finds for NASA. However, this program will be tailored to prepare people for orbit and use of the space station.
The new training program may include Virgin Galactic spacecraft driving and provide customers with some space and weightlessness experiences before going into orbit for a longer stay. The company's spacecraft also pulls extra Gs when it launches into space, as well as rockets launching into orbit. According to the company, experiencing this first-hand could also be valuable for training. According to Virgin Galactic, budding astronauts will also use some of the company's facilities at Spaceport America in New Mexico to prepare for their travels.
The new training program may include Virgin Galactic spacecraft driving
"We want to put together the right package so it's not just about going to a class for three hours and listening to a PowerPoint file," says Moses. "How do you make this an engaging and enjoyable experience that you want to have?"
NASA says it will ultimately review the plan that Virgin Galactic is putting together. "Under the agreement, NASA will evaluate the feasibility of Virgin Galactics' plan to develop a new astronaut readiness program for private orbitals to facilitate 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 readiness program directly support NASA's comprehensive strategy to facilitate commercialization of near-Earth orbit by US companies."
This news comes after NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine also announced plans to fly NASA astronauts with suborbital vehicles such as the Virgin Galactic spacecraft and rival Blue Origin's rocket for tourists. Bridenstine didn't release much of the details, saying the plans would come out sometime this week.
The partnership also means that Virgin Galactic will take on a new role as a broker and will provide customers, resources and transportation to make these trips possible. The company currently has a handful of new transportation options designed to fly people into orbit. SpaceX's Crew Dragon has just sent its first two passengers to the ISS and should regularly fly people to and from orbit later this year. Boeing is also developing a crew capsule called the CST-100 Starliner to put people into orbit, although the vehicle is unlikely to fly its first passengers until next year at the earliest. Each seat in the Crew Dragon costs a little less than $ 60 million, while a seat in the Starliner costs around $ 90 million.
There is now a third non-American option to get into orbit: the Russian Soyuz capsule, which since NASA's space shuttle program ended in 2011, has been the only way to get astronauts to and from the space station . Historically, NASA has paid approximately $ 80 million for a seat on Soyuz.
While these are the only three ways to get people to the International Space Station, Virgin Galactic would not comment on which vehicles are considered for flights. However, Moses said that the training program that the company is developing will need to be adjusted depending on which capsules bring people into space. For example, SpaceX has developed various hardware at its facilities in Hawthorne to simulate what it is like to fly with the Crew Dragon, which could be useful for training.
"What you're going to do while you're there is the other big piece we're really looking forward to."
Virgin Galactic says it is in preliminary talks with potential customers who are interested in sending people to the space station for a variety of reasons – from commercial to research. The company is also looking for a way to train customers how to use the space station when they are up there, depending on the reason for their visit. "What you will do while you are there is the other big piece that we are really looking forward to sinking our teeth into," says Moses. "How to prepare while you're there and then support you once you're on the station."
This new program leads to a larger NASA goal to open the International Space Station for more commercial purposes. For decades, the ISS has been primarily a place for governmental and academic research, but the space agency announced last year that it would give companies access to the ISS for commercial purposes, such as filming ads or films, and will even enable them to broadcast theirs own private astronauts to the station. So far, a company called Axiom, which wanted to build a private space station, has announced plans to send its own representatives to the ISS via a Crew Dragon capsule at the end of next year.
"The exciting thing here is that this is another step to open Earth's orbit for a diverse renaissance of activities, and we're excited to be part of it," said Whitesides.