Virgin Galactic signs NASA agreement to use flights to train astronauts

Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft outside Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic

Shares of Virgin Galactic shares jumped Monday after it signed an agreement with NASA that will allow the space tourism venture to train astronauts for trips to the International Space Station on flights to the edge of space.

The company — which is publicly traded but largely owned by founder Richard Branson and chairman Chamath Palihapitiya — announced on Monday that it signed a “Space Act Agreement” with NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which leads the agency’s astronaut program in Houston.

Shares of Virgin Galactic rose as much as 14% in early trading from its previous close of $15 a share.

Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft Unity comes into land during a glide test flight on May 1, 2020.

Virgin Galactic

Under the agreement, Virgin Galactic said it will develop a “private orbital astronaut readiness program,” similar to the one it has to prepare tourists for its own flights. The company also said it will seek to buy seats on flights to the space station, currently offered by SpaceX with its Crew Dragon spacecraft. Virgin Galactic said the missions “could range from private citizen expeditions to government-enabled scientific research.”

“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,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in a statement.

The announcement did not say how much NASA plans to pay Virgin Galactic under the agreement. Virgin Galactic has 603 reservations for private passengers to fly to space, with the majority of those tickets sold for $200,000 to $250,000 per person. The company has yet to begin commercial service, with testing continuing at the company’s operating base in New Mexico toward its first flight of a paying customer.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a tweet Friday that the agency will issue requests for information with more details this week.

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