Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. was just granted regulatory approval to launch customers into space by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in a major benchmark for the nascent, billionaire-led industry, according to a press release from the company.
This move essentially legitimizes the first-ever "spaceline" for commercial flights to space.
Virgin Galactic is the world's first 'spaceline'
The company's new permission from the FAA expands Virgin Galactic's existing license, which until the new announcement allowed it to fly astronauts and professional test pilots to space in its spaceplane. But now, after a successful May 22 test flight, the aerospace company can fly people on a fare, transforming into the world's first "spaceline": An airline, but one that takes you to space. Virgin Galactic aims to lift space tourists and researchers into suborbital space regularly, which will give everyone who can afford it uncomparable views of the Earth, in addition to several minutes of authentic weightlessness. Each trip will take roughly 2 hours.
While this is an unquestionably huge step for Virgin Galactic, it still needs to execute and ace three more test flights before it can start taking paying customers to suborbital space. These will be the Virgin spacecraft's (and its carrier's) first flights with a crew on board, and they should go forward sometime "this summer," said Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier, according to a report from Tech Crunch. And there's more.
There's a chance that an investor in Virgin Galactic named Sir Richard Branson might take a seat on the next test flight, which could take off during the upcoming July 4 weekend. If Branson does it, he might make it to space before Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos does, on the latter's New Shepard spaceship flight, set for July 20. But according to the Tech Crunch report, some sources have cast doubt on this possibility.
Virgin Galactic will likely become an integral part of the nascent industry
Virgin Galactic's spaceplane looks very bizarre, both in shape and in virtue of the way its exterior shifts colors as it mirrors the surrounding environment of Earth, and suborbital space. Called the "VSS Imagine", it was revealed on March 30 of this year, and is based out of the company's Spaceport America complex in New Mexico. The reflective exterior material of the spaceplane also provides thermal protection, and the mirror-like quality represents "our inherent human fascination with space and the transformative experience of spaceflight," according to a press release from the company.
"[W]e need many more ships than we have right now and we also need the ships that [are] able to be maintained in a way that we can have much quicker [turnaround time between flights," said Colglazier in an interview with CNBC. The VSS Imagine "has been designed in a way that's taken the learnings [the aerospace firm] had from all the flight testing on Unity," added Colglazier, referring to an earlier model of the spaceplane.
This is a world-historic time for space flight like never before. Countries like China and the United Arab Emirates have reached Mars for the first time, with the latter already landing its first rover on the Red Planet, and announcing plans to put the first humans on the Red Planet. SpaceX is edging closer to completing its primary Mars transport ship, called Starship, after a prototype made its first successful landing earlier this year. Jeff Bezos plans to launch himself into space, which would make him the first billionaire to leave Earth alive. Meanwhile, NASA and several international and private partners are moving forward with the Artemis program to build a settlement on the moon. For better or worse, commercial spaceflight is here to stay, and Virgin Galactic is sure to become an integral part of it.