Virgin Galactic to buy seats on rockets and train private astronauts for Space Station trips

Darrell Etherington
Astronaut Cady Coleman looking out window of the International Space Station / Image courtesy of NASA

Space tourism company Virgin Galactic has just revealed a novel extension of their business mode, through a new agreement signed with NASA enabled by the Space Act Agreement. The arrangement will see Virgin Galactic purchase seats on spacecraft bound for the orbiting International Space Station, as well as provide training and supplies and resources for those individuals. Virgin Galactic is in the process of developing its own sub-orbital space tourism program using its own spacecraft that will launch from a carrier airplane, but this deal would involve use of other spacecraft that have the capacity to reach orbit and the ISS -- which Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo can't do.

The most likely candidate for where Virgin will be procuring those seats right now is SpaceX, although Virgin's press release announcing the news does not mention the Elon Musk-led company. SpaceX's Crew Dragon, which is currently docked at the ISS after its first-ever successful astronaut-carrying launch last month, is likely to become the first human-rated private spacecraft certified by NASA upon its return to Earth, likely happening sometime around August. Crew Dragon can hold as many as seven people per launch, and NASA is only ever going to use a maximum of four seats, the agency has said, with hopes that private individuals, including researchers and tourists, will buy up remaining tickets to help offset the costs of launch.

Virgin Galactic will essentially be operating a launch services business for private astronauts, similar to the one set up by Space Adventures, which has an agreement in place with SpaceX, and which previously brokered trips to the ISS for private astronauts, including Anousheh Ansari aboard Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. Again, SpaceX hasn't been mentioned here specifically, and Virgin Galactic will likely also be seeking access to Boeing's Starliner crew spacecraft once it's operational and certified to transport humans to the ISS, too. It is interesting to note that SpaceX's arrangement with Space Adventures thus far focuses only on orbital fly-and-return missions for Crew Dragon, and not on any flights that would involve actually docking at the ISS.

Also worth noting is that Virgin Galactic will be procuring and training private astronauts, including individual citizens, as well as government-sponsored scientific research missions. So publicly funded scientists that aren't specifically NASA astronauts will likely also go through Virgin. The private spaceflight company says it will use its Spaceport America facility in New Mexico for "some elements of the training program."

Virgin Galactic's move from being a private spaceflight launch provider to a services and procurement company working between NASA and private spaceflight launch companies is definitely a large and significant shift in its business. It should definitely decrease the company's time to revenue as it continues to develop and test its own human launch capabilities, a process which obviously carries a lot more overhead than working with existing, already certified launch providers as an intermediary provider.