June 22, 2020 / 11:49 AM / 21 days ago

Virgin Galactic, NASA to develop program for private missions to space station

FILE PHOTO: Virgin Galactic (SPCE) logo is displayed on a screen on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) as the company begins public trading in New York, U.S., October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

(Reuters) - Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc (SPCE.N) said on Monday it has signed up with NASA to develop a program to promote private missions to the International Space Station (ISS), sending the shares of the company up about 16%.

As part of its agreement with the Johnson Space Center, the space tourism company will identify candidates interested in buying tickets for private rides to space in orbital-grade vehicles from other companies, and develop training packages under its “astronaut readiness program.”

The company competes with billionaire-backed ventures such as Amazon.com Inc’s (AMZN.O) Blue Origin that are vying to usher in a new era of space tourism, racing to be the first to offer sub-orbital flights to civilian space travelers.

Virgin Galactic offers zero-gravity experiences to customers with its centerpiece SpaceShipTwo plane and has long-term point-to-point travel plans to quickly transport passengers from city to city at near-space altitudes.

This is the second agreement between Virgin Galactic and the U.S. space agency. In May, the two entered an agreement to develop ‘high-Mach’ aircraft for potential civilian use.

For NASA, the private partnerships are helping it revive its own human space missions. Last month, Elon Musk’s SpaceX ended NASA’s nine-year hiatus by delivering two astronauts to the ISS.

The space agency is leaning heavily on private companies built around shared visions for space exploration, as it gears up for a long-term presence on the moon and prepares for a manned mission to Mars.

Shares of Virgin Galactic closed at $17.39.

Reporting by Neha Malara and Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Arun Koyyur, Eric M. Johnson and Himani Sarkar

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