Branson: Virgin Galactic to Enter NASA’s Commercial Crew Competition

Sir Richard Branson and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in front of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo during the Spaceport America runway dedication ceremony.

Suborbital space tourism company Virgin Galactic intends to propose a commercial orbital system to NASA as part of the space agency’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.

Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson announced the intention during the runway dedication for Spaceport America in Upham, NM. The ceremony — which was attended by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, and Apollo astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt — was held at the facility where Virgin Galactic will launch commercial suborbital flights in 18-24 months.

The dedication ceremony included a flyover and landing by the WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. The sun-splashed event was attended by about 600 people, including 30 future millionauts who are set to fly from the still unfinished desert spaceport.

There are no details available about Virgin Galactic’s planned CCDev bid. NASA is scheduled to release an RFP for phase 2 of the program on Monday, with awards to be made in March.

Scaled Composites is building WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo and working with Sierra Nevada Corporation on the spaceship’s engine. NASA awarded a $20 million contract to Sierra Nevada under the first phase of CCDev to develop its Dream Chaser space plane, which would be launched aboard an Atlas V rocket. The Dream Chaser and SpaceShipTwo use the same hybrid propulsion system.

Scaled Composites is currently testing the space plane in Mojave, Calif. Branson said that operations will be moved out to New Mexico in 9-18 months.

The new runway, completed several months ago, was named after the Bill Richardson Spaceway after the outgoing governor, who pushed to bring Virgin Galactic to his state.