CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — Virgin Galactic finally has the federal government’s approval to start launching customers into space from New Mexico.
Richard Branson’s rocketship company announced the Federal Aviation Administration’s updated license on Friday.
It’s the final hurdle in Virgin Galactic’s yearslong effort to send paying passengers on short space hops.
The company is working toward three more space test flights, with the next one this summer. The original plans called for Branson to be aboard a test flight later this year, with flights for paying customers beginning next year.
Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos plans to ride his own rocket into space July 20 from Texas.
“I appreciate that there is a lot of speculation” over whether Branson will try to beat Bezos into space, company spokeswoman Valerija Cymbal said in an email. “But we don’t have any announcements about Virgin Galactic’s future flight plans at this time.”
Unlike Blue Origin's and SpaceX's capsules launched from the ground by reusable rockets, Virgin Galactic uses a winged spacecraft that launches from the belly of an airplane. It's reached space three times since 2018 with two pilots in the cockpit. The second trip carried a third company employee.
A review of the company's third flight to space in May — which reached an altitude of 55 miles (89 kilometers) — showed everything went well and paved the way for the necessary FAA permission.
“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,” chief executive officer Michael Colglazier said in a statement
More than 600 people already have reserved a ride to space. Tickets initially cost $250,000, but the price is expected to go up once Virgin Galactic starts accepting reservations again.
Blue Origin has yet to sell tickets to the public or say what it will cost. Bezos is taking his brother and two others along for the ride on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the first human moon landing.