Virgin Galactic receives regulatory approvals to fly customers into space

Federal Aviation Administration upgrades company’s existing licence to cover customer flights

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, dubbed the VSS Unity, lands after completing its first ever free-flight test. The company received regulatory approval to fly customers into space. Kenneth Brown / Reuters
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Virgin Galactic received regulatory approval to fly customers into space, moving the budding industry founded by billionaires one step closer to reality.

The Federal Aviation Administration upgraded the company’s existing licence to cover customer flights, Virgin Galactic said Friday in a statement, saying the approval was the first of its kind. The company also confirmed that a May 22 test flight performed well against objectives.

The approval marks another milestone for an industry that not long ago was the stuff of science fiction. Virgin Galactic, founded by entrepreneur Richard Branson, has been working toward its goal since 2004. Fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos plans his first trip in July, after auctioning a passenger seat for $28 million.

Shares of Virgin Galactic jumped 12 per cent in premarket US trading. As of Thursday, the company had a market value of $9.7bn.

Data from the May test flight, Virgin Galactic’s first rocket burn in two years, confirmed that upgraded horizontal stabilisers and flight controls on the VSS Unity performed in line with predictions, Virgin Galactic said.

The suborbital, rocket-powered craft is carried from take off by a larger craft called VMS Eve, then released. In the May flight it achieved a speed of Mach 3 and reached space at an altitude of 55.5 miles.

The company said it would continue preparing for three remaining test flights.