Featured image credit: Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic has announced a new partnership with NASA which involves identifying and training private astronauts for orbital flights to the International Space Station (ISS). The news comes following the company’s recent announcement of partnership with NASA to support efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Both of these deals are considered a “Space Act Agreement,” a special category of legal agreements that allow NASA to work with any company they deem qualified to help achieve the Agency’s goals and agenda. NASA has several thousand such Agreements with companies around the world; today’s new Agreement between NASA and Virgin Galactic helps broaden the number of companies working to help establish a commercial human presence in space.
In this Space Act Agreement, Virgin Galactic has signed on to help with identifying and training private astronauts who want to fly to the ISS. This work is similar to part of the arrangement that Virigina-based company Space Adventures has; that company too identifies and books seats for private space tourists who want to visit the ISS. (In the case of Space Adventures, they have historically worked with Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, to procure seats on Soyuz rockets and training for private astronauts; a recent partnership with SpaceX means they may also use excess Crew Dragon seats for the same purpose.)
“Under the agreement, Virgin Galactic will develop a new private orbital astronaut readiness program,” the statement reads. “This program will include identifying candidates interested in purchasing private astronaut missions to the ISS, the procurement of transportation to the ISS, on-orbit resources, and ground resources. … Virgin Galactic will also contribute end-to-end program management and integrated astronaut training packages for private passengers, tailored to meet the needs for a commercial orbital space flight experience.”
This adds-on a new business opportunity for Virgin Galactic, which up to this point has been focused exclusively on providing sub-orbital flights aboard their own spacecraft. While no paying passengers have flown, Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Instructor, made a historic flight aboard the company’s VSS Unity in February 2019. Since then, the company has relocated operations from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port to their permanent home at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
As part of the statement, Virgin Galactic revealed that Spaceport America will also be the home of this new astronaut training program for ISS flights. “Virgin Galactic’s existing space experiences could play an important role in the training for orbital travel, allowing passengers to become familiar with the environment in space, such as G-forces and zero-G. Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic’s home base, will be utilized for some elements of the training program, using the facilities designed for private astronaut training,” the company’s online statement continues.
“We are excited to partner with NASA on this private orbital spaceflight program, which will not only allow us to use our spaceflight platform, but also offer our space training infrastructure to NASA and other agencies,” said George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic. “Based on the unsurpassed levels of spaceflight customer commitments we have secured to date, we are proud to share that insight in helping to grow another market for the new space economy. We want to bring the planetary perspective to many thousands of people.”
This latest Space Act Agreement suggests that NASA is getting on board with the same idea, and that the long-promised opportunities of space tourism may finally be approaching.