Virgin Galactic inks deal with NASA to train astro-tourists looking to buy a seat to the International Space Station

Somebody else will have to provide the rocket, though

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Virgin Galactic, the company that has yet to send a paying passenger on a sub-orbital lob, let alone trouble anything more challenging, has opened the door to "Private Orbital Spaceflight".

Not that its SpaceShipTwo, which has notched up a pair of sub-orbital flights, will be going anywhere near orbit. The deal is strictly for training and procurement, a disappointment for fans and investors alike hoping for something a bit more dramatic in the wake of SpaceX sending astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

Virgin Galactic did, after all, beat SpaceX into launching humans into space from American soil, but that pesky orbital thing is just a step too far for its current technology. Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser is likely to be the first spaceplane (since the Space Shuttle) launched into orbit, although it won't initially be crewed.

Richard Branson's team instead plans to provide "an unparalleled, personalized customer experience for orbital space travel" for those that sign up for its orbital astronaut readiness programme.

As well as identifying candidates with deep enough pockets for a mission to the ISS, Virgin Galactic will also take care of dealing with ISS resources, ground resources and procuring transportation because, well, SpaceShipTwo just won't cut it.

At the moment there are only two names in town when it comes to getting to the ISS: the venerable Russian Soyuz or SpaceX's shiny new Crew Dragon (which has yet to demonstrate it can safely return a human cargo to Earth). A seat on either costs considerably more than a jaunt on SpaceShipTwo.

The third transportation provider, Boeing, has yet to get its calamity capsule, the CST-100 Starliner, to the ISS. It has managed a single, uncrewed launch where a succession of errors led to an embarrassingly early return to Earth without troubling the orbital outpost.

Virgin Galactic remained tight-lipped on which of the three vendors might be on its shopping list. Instead, it pointed to all the training facilities it had available through its existing "space experiences". Exactly why a participant would want to use its facilities rather than those of SpaceX, Boeing or Roscosmos is unclear.

The whole shebang comes under a Space Act Agreement with NASA's Johnson Space Center, which is aimed at encouraging more commercial participation in orbital human spaceflight.

"Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic's home base," gushed the company, "will be utilized for some elements of the training program, using the facilities designed for private astronaut training."

In the continued absence of the long-promised sub-orbital flights, locals will be relieved that the spaceport might at least be used for something. ®

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