Virgin Galactic Gets Operator’s License to Fly Passengers to Edge of Space

A view from inside the cockpit. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
  • Company says next flight will be “fully crewed” with four people in passenger cabin
  • Company remains mum on who will fly and when
  • Flight with spaceflight participants (i.e., tourists) possible before Jeff Bezos’ suborbital flight on July 20
  • Will Richard Branson fly before Bezos?

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic announced today that it had received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to launch paying spaceflight participants (aka, tourists) on suborbital flights aboard the company’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity vehicle later this summer.

Virgin Galactic had been previously limited to flying employees as test subjects and automated scientific experiments. The operator’s license opens the way for passengers to fly to the edge of space from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

“The adjustment to Virgin Galactic’s operator’s license, which the Company has held since 2016, marks the first time the FAA has licensed a spaceline to fly customers. It is further validation of the Company’s methodical testing program, which has met the verification and validation criteria required by the FAA,” the company said in a press release.

The change means that Virgin Galactic could beat Jeff Bezos’ rival Blue Origin into commercial service . Bezos plans to fly aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule on July 20 with his brother Mark, an anonymous bidder paying $29.68 million for a seat, and an unidentified fourth person. It will be the first New Shepard flight with people aboard after 15 uncrewed tests.

ParabolicArc previously reported that Virgin Galactic was working to fly Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson as a spaceflight participant over the Fourth of July holiday weekend in order to fly before his rival.

Virgin Galactic said the next flight later this summer would be “fully crewed,” which means two pilots and four spaceflight participants in the passenger cabin. The company did not announce who would fly or when the flight would occur.

Virgin Galactic has previously announced plans to fly four employees in the cabin to evaluate the passenger experience. That flight test would be followed by company founder Richard Branson, who would provide his own input. The final test would have three Italian Air Force officers aboard to conduct experiments and train for future spaceflight.

Virgin Galactic said it expected to complete the flight test program by late summer or early fall. VSS Unity and its WhiteKnightTwo mothership, VMS Eve, would then undergo four months of maintenance and modifications before flying paying customers early next year.

Now that Virgin Galactic has an operator’s license, it is free to stick with its original schedule or move up Branson’s spaceflight participant flight. The company could also fly paying customers along with the British billionaire. Neither the company nor Branson has announced who, if anyone, would be on that flight other than the two pilots.

VSS Unity conducted its third suborbital flight test in May. Virgin Galactic said publicly and sources told ParabolicArc privately that the flight went perfectly. That gave the company confidence that it would be able to meet its final requirements for a FAA launch license to carry passengers.

“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. 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,” CEO Michael Colglazier said in a press release today.

The FAA is solely concerned with protecting the “uninvolved public,” i.e., people and property on the ground that are not involved in the flight. There are no federal safety regulations covering either passengers or crew members. Customers fly at their own risk and are required to sign safety waivers prior to their flights.

New Mexico has also passed a law limiting lawsuits from spaceflight participants or their families to cases of intentional harm or gross negligence.

To launch over the Fourth of July weekend, Virgin Galactic would need to turn around VSS Unity and VMS Eve in about 44 days. The company’s previous record is 73 days between the spacecraft’s first and second suborbital flights in December 2018 and February 2019.

A 44-day turnaround should be achievable if engineers did not find any damage to the vehicles from the May flight or identify any lengthy maintenance or modifications they would need to make before the next launch. The company eventually plans to launch SpaceShipTwo vehicles on a regular basis.