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Virgin Galactic to Train "Private Astronauts" for NASA

By Rich Smith – Jun 22, 2020 at 1:44PM

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Virgin can't fly to ISS itself, but it can help other folks prepare to make the trip.

Shares of space tourism pioneer Virgin Galactic Holdings (SPCE 7.60%) took off like ... well, like a rocketship this morning. Shares are up more than 13% in early afternoon trading after the company announced that it has inked a deal with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to "develop a new private orbital astronaut readiness program."

SpaceShipTwo rocketing towards space.

Image source: Virgin Galactic.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine had previously alluded to this news on Friday, "tweeting" that NASA has plans to fly astronauts "on commercial suborbital spacecraft."

At the time, Bridenstine did not specify precisely which "commercial suborbital spacecraft" company he was talking about: There are two, Virgin Galactic, and the Blue Origin space company founded by Amazon.com (AMZN 4.50%) CEO Jeff Bezos. 

Within the new program announced today, Virgin Galactic will be tasked with "identifying candidates interested in purchasing private astronaut missions to the" International Space Station (ISS), with providing "program management and integrated astronaut training packages," and, ultimately. "the procurement of transportation to the ISS, on-orbit resources, and ground resources."

Neither NASA nor Virgin appears to be claiming that Virgin Galactic spacecraft themselves will fly to ISS, just train astronauts to do so. Indeed, Virgin's spacecraft probably cannot make the trip. The highest altitude Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo experimental spaceplanes have yet reached falls short of even the 62-mile-high "Karman line" marking where "Earth" ends and "space" begins, and ISS orbits 200 miles higher up than that.

Thus, it would appear that to "procure" transportation to ISS, Virgin Galactic will need to find another company to fly astronauts to their final destination. Over at SpaceX and Boeing, operators surely are standing by and awaiting the call if needed.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Rich Smith has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon and Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc and recommends the following options: short January 2022 $1940 calls on Amazon and long January 2022 $1920 calls on Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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