Virgin Galactic
Credit: GENE BLEVINS/Getty Images

Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company headed by Sir Richard Branson, is set to become the first publicly-traded company with plans to send people to space. While that may not seem like the most exciting news, it means that Virgin Galactic is more likely than ever to continue on track with its space tourism plans.

The company has agreed to sell 49 percent to a shell company (called Social Capital Hedosophia) listed on the New York Stock Exchange. That company’s investment should generate about $800 million before Virgin Galactic attempts its first spaceflight with passengers, according to Bloomberg. By merging with an existing company, Virgin Galactic’s transition to becoming a publicly-traded company is less risky than going it alone.

“We know that millions of people are deeply inspired by human spaceflight, would love to become more involved and, ultimately experience space for themselves,” Branson wrote in a statement. “By taking Virgin Galactic public, at this advanced point in its development, we can open space to more investors and in doing so, open space to thousands of new astronauts.”

Virgin Galactic believes that this public investment would allow the company to operate its spaceflights until a time when they become profitable.

The 90-minute flight experience includes a few minutes of weightlessness and enough distance to see the curvature of the Earth. Despite its $250,000 price tag, more than 600 people have already signed up for a future space flight, the company said in a statement. This backlog of customers would single-handedly double the number of humans who have entered space.

Earlier this year, Virgin Galactic announced it was moving operations from California to the New Mexico desert and that it could send its first tourists to space by the end of the year.

Branson’s company is in competition with Blue Origin (owned by Jeff Bezos) and SpaceX (owned by Elon Musk). Blue Origin aims to send commercial passengers to the moon by 2024 and SpaceX is hoping to get people on the surface of Mars that same year. (But take that date with a bit of salt. In 2017, Blue Origin said it could be taking people to space by 2018.)