The Virgin Galactic license starts the countdown to the billion-dollar space race

The billionaire space race between Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson entered the final stage Friday, as Branson’s Virgin Galactic finally won the approval of U.S. regulators to put paying passengers within the lower limits of space.

Approval by the Federal Aviation Authority sent Galactic shares up 37 percent in morning trading in New York, marking an almost fourfold increase from a low point just over a month ago when Wall Street is worried about a long delay in its test program. Since then, the suborbital spacecraft has completed its mission first successful test in more than a year.

The FAA license seemed to be the last step needed to free up the Galactic Unity spacecraft to carry commercial passengers, said Laura Forczyk, Astralytical space analyst. “They are finally there,” he said.

The green light from regulators paves the way for Branson to make a personal journey to the edge of the space he has promised for more than a decade. Galactic said its flight will be one of three tests it plans to do before it begins transporting paying passengers on its six-seater ship.

Richard Branson is now ready for a personal trip to the shores of space © Brendan McDermid / Reuters

On Friday, Michael Colglazier, executive director, said the FAA license and recent test “give us confidence as we move toward our first fully equipped test flight this summer.” The company did not say when the flight would take place or if Branson would be on board.

Bezos has already set July 20 as the date for his first space flight, on top of a missile developed by his private space company, Blue Origin. The Blue Origin spacecraft carries payloads at an altitude of more than 100 km, the beginning of the internationally recognized space, while the Galactic spacecraft reaches only a height of more than 80 km, a level that the US officially considers the space.

Planned flights by the company’s billionaire founders set a race to become the first to mount a fully commercial operation, Galactic said it was the first to receive a full license to carry paying passengers.

“There’s a lot of growing demand for space tourism,” Forczyk said. She indicated a waiting list of about 600 people who had been waiting for years to travel on the Galactic article. If the company can safely move to complete business operations, it was likely to trigger a much larger wave of interest from potential customers, he added.

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