Virgin Galactic, NASA Ink Space Transportation Deal
October 15, 2011

Virgin Galactic, NASA Ink Space Transportation Deal

NASA has signed a deal with Virgin Galactic to use the Richard Branson-founded company's spacecraft and southern New Mexico spaceport for suborbital flights, various media outlets reported Friday.

According to the Associated Press (AP), the deal will allow the U.S. space agency to charter a flight from the company onboard SpaceShipTwo, and contains options for two additional flights. If the option is picked up for all three flights, it would net Virgin Galactic a total of $4.5 million.

In a statement released by the company on Thursday, Virgin Galactic officials confirmed that the company had been selected to charter the flights under NASA's Flight Opportunities Program. Each of the missions would allow for a maximum of 1,300 pounds worth of scientific experiments, meaning that each flight could take up to 600 experimental payloads into outer space, they added.

"These research flights mark an important milestone for Virgin Galactic," the company said in their press release. "Although generally referred to as a space tourism company -- Virgin Galactic has already collected more than $58 million in deposits from 455 future tourist astronauts -- providing access to space to researchers and their experiments is viewed by Virgin Galactic as both a future mission segment and a significant business opportunity."

“We are excited to be working with NASA to provide the research community with this opportunity to carry out experiments in space,” added Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides. “An enormous range of disciplines can benefit from access to space, but historically, such research opportunities have been rare and expensive. At Virgin Galactic, we are fully dedicated to revolutionizing access to space, both for tourist astronauts and, through programs like this, for researchers.”

W.J. Hennigan of the Los Angeles Times notes that the flight was chartered so that NASA could conduct experiments, and that Branson's firm would provide a flight test engineer on the mission "to monitor and interact with experiments as necessary, a capability that has never before been available on suborbital vehicles."

Virgin Galactic currently intends to attempt their first passenger flight in 2012 from a still-under-construction facility, known as Spaceport America and located in New Mexico, Hennigan said. SpaceShip Two will be lifted to a height of 50,000 feet by a carrier aircraft, and afterwards will separate and reach heights of approximately 60 miles above the planet's surface.

"At that suborbital altitude, passengers will experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth," he added. "The company said it has taken about 455 reservations for the ride. The price per flight for a wannabe space tourist is $200,000."


Image Caption: SpaceShipTwo (central fuselage) carried under its mothership. Credit: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg


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