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Virgin Galactic CEO is 'really excited' about the opportunity to fly NASA astronauts and researchers

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Virgin Galactic is steadily moving closer to flying customers to the edge of space for the first time but the space tourism company is looking forward to the growing opportunity to fly NASA personnel as well. 

“I’m really excited about this one because for a long time NASA has been thinking about using suborbital vehicles, the ones that we’ve got, to train their astronauts and other NASA employees like researchers to go into space,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides told CNBC’s Morgan Brennan on “Squawk Alley.”

Shares of Virgin Galactic rose more than 2% in midday trading from its previous close of $15.25.

Inside Virgin Galactic’s hangar at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic

NASA, for its part, is pulling together the plan for how it will fly personnel on suborbital spaceflights. Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin represent the two leading U.S. companies in developing spacecraft that can fly people to the edge of space. The agency earlier this week announced the creation of the Suborbital Crew office within its existing Commercial Crew program, appointing Scott Colloredo from Kennedy Space Center to lead the new office. NASA issued a request for information from companies that offer suborbital flights, with responses due on Aug. 7. 

“We’re excited to see what industry has and that’s the purpose of the current step of the process,” Colloredo told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday.

While suborbital flights would serve a different purpose than orbital missions, NASA expects flying its personnel with Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin would be less costly than the price of flying to orbit with SpaceX or Boeing. A seat on an orbital flight costs anywhere between $55 million and $90 million.

“I think it’d be really useful for NASA,” Whitesides said.

Virgin Galactic also announced earlier this week that it signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA that will allow Virgin Galactic to provide training and logistics for orbital flights, as well. While Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft can’t reach the International Space Station, the company would seek to buy seats for passengers on flights to the space station, such as on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.

“We remain focused on flying  our passengers to space,” Whitesides said. “[But] now that we’re on the final run towards commercial operations … we felt like it was a good moment to take a look at this and to see whether we could sort of extend our brand into this area.”

Although Virgin Galactic doesn’t plan to develop a spacecraft that would fly to the space station, the agreement “sets us up to become a player in the provision of that service,” Whitesides explained.

“I think that the general area of orbital human spaceflight is a tremendous market and if we can play a useful role in some way I think it’ll be an important area for the company,” Whitesides added.

Taking steps toward commercial service

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

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic leadership in November said the company would begin flying its first customers “in the middle of the next year.” But that goal has been tempered in recent months, as Whitesides told shareholders in February that the company’s main goal this year is to safely fly founder Sir Richard Branson to space. Asked on Friday about Virgin Galactic’s timeline, Whitesides shied away from giving a new target for the beginning of commercial service.

“We’re going to take that step-by-step, as we always do, and we’re going to let the engineers really dictate the schedule,” Whitesides told CNBC. “But we’re making great progress.”

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