Virgin Galactic inks deal with NASA to train astronauts for commercial space trips

NASA, and the ISS, are a big part of Virgin’s private spaceflight plans.

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Virgin Galactic has come to an agreement with NASA to train up the next generation of astronauts for commercial trips to space. 

Announced on Monday, the partnership will focus on the expansion of space travel beyond research and may result in forging financially viable paths for Virgin Galactic to offer private astronaut missions and visits to the International Space Station (ISS). 

It may be odd to think of the ISS as a destination for holidaymakers and NASA as a partner to a travel agency -- especially in a time when the global economy has been rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic -- but this has not prevented Virgin Galactic from pushing ahead with its goals to become one of the go-to companies for lucrative space trips; at least, for those with deep pockets. 

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Under the terms of the deal, dubbed a "Space Act Agreement," Virgin Galactic will create a "private orbital astronaut readiness program" which will find clients and would-be astronaut candidates interested in securing a seat on craft destined for the ISS. 

The program will also procure transport to the space station, the resources required to send passengers into space, and will work with NASA's Johnson Space Center to safely manage the trips. 

It will not just be private clients who want to switch traditional holiday plans for space, however, as Virgin Galactic also intends to facilitate journeys for scientific reasons, whether funded by government agencies or corporate bodies. 

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NASA and Virgin Galactic will come together to create the program, of which one of the key features is the creation of a commercial gateway to the ISS National Laboratory, a prospect named as a "pathfinder" for the "additional involvement by the commercial sector in human spaceflight."

Virgin Galactic's trips are not commercially available yet, but training initiatives are already underway in New Mexico, with passengers set to become familiar with experiences including G-forces and zero-G environments during private astronaut training sessions. 

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"We are excited to partner with NASA on this private orbital spaceflight program, which will not only allow us to use our spaceflight platform, but also offer our space training infrastructure to NASA and other agencies," says George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic CEO.  "Based on the unsurpassed levels of spaceflight customer commitments we have secured to date, we are proud to share that insight in helping to grow another market for the new space economy."

NASA is not only interested in exploring the potential of commercial spaceflights, however. Last month, the US agency published a request for participants interested in spending eight months in a simulated space mission ahead of Artemis, a 2024 mission to the Moon. 

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