What’s next for commercial spaceflight? Passengers

Richard Branson and astronauts
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, center, celebrates this week’s successful test flight of VSS Unity with test pilots Rick “CJ” Sturckow at left and Mark “Forger” Stucky at right. Branson says he’ll be Unity’s first commercial passenger. (Virgin Galactic / Quasar Media Photo)

MOJAVE, Calif. — The first suborbital space passenger is less likely to be a billionaire like Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson or Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos, and more likely to be an as-yet-unnamed employee at one of their companies.

That’s despite Branson’s promise, reiterated in the wake of Dec. 13’s successful test flight past the 50-mile altitude mark, that he’d be the first commercial passenger on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity within the next few months.

The word “passenger” is key: We’re not talking about the people who are actually flying the spacecraft, such as the two test pilots who were at Unity’s controls this week. Rather, we’re talking about folks who will be seated in Virgin Galactic’s Unity rocket plane, behind the pilots, or in Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew capsule.

“Suborbital” is key as well: There have already been a good number of passengers on orbital spacecraft, going back to the days of Russia’s Mir space station in the 1990s. Seven people have paid their own way for trips to the International Space Station, with the official status of spaceflight participants. Looking ahead, passengers may get their chance to purchase seats on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon or Boeing’s Starliner space capsule.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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