Shares of space tourism pioneer Virgin Galactic Holdings (NYSE:SPCE) 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."
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine had previously alluded to this news on Friday, "tweeting" that NASA has plans to fly astronauts "on commercial suborbital spacecraft."
BREAKING: @NASA is developing the process to fly astronauts on commercial suborbital spacecraft. Whether it's suborbital, orbital, or deep space, NASA will utilize our nation's innovative commercial capabilities. RFI will be released next week. pic.twitter.com/MOvRMywZAK— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) June 19, 2020
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 (NASDAQ:AMZN) 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.