Virgin Galactic, the world's first commercial spaceline, owned by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS, has been selected by NASA to provide flight opportunities for engineers, technologists and scientific researchers to fly technology payloads into space. This arrangement marks the first time that NASA has contracted with a commercial partner to provide flights into space on a suborbital spacecraft, and represents another important endorsement of the value of regular commercial space access for a wide range of science and educational applications.
The announcement came from NASA's Flight Opportunities Program, funded by NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist and managed out of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, CA. Through this program, NASA has already arranged the flight of several innovative scientific payloads on low-altitude rockets. With selection of Virgin Galactic as a flight provider, NASA will soon be able to offer the research community access to space itself.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is the only crewed suborbital vehicle in flight test today, and the only such vehicle based on a spacecraft that has already sent humans into space, the X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne. Virgin Galactic offers a significantly larger cabin than any other company taking deposits today, allowing for unique technology demonstrations and research.
"The Flight Opportunities program is an efficient research program that leverages investment in private vehicles to drive new discoveries for researchers and real benefits for taxpayers," said George Whitesides, President and CEO of Virgin Galactic. "NASA leadership, the Office of the Chief Technologist and Congress deserve credit for supporting this worthy program. We look forward to providing a high-quality, cost-effective research platform for researchers and scientists over the coming years."
With several flight providers selected, NASA will now be able to begin the process of offering these flight opportunities to the research community, which has already expressed very strong interest in such a novel environment. Proposals are being invited from the research community by NASA and are expected to span a wide variety of disciplines. NASA's Flight Opportunities Program will be responsible for selecting those which go forward for flight.
These research flights mark an important milestone for Virgin Galactic. Although generally referred to as a space tourism company-Virgin Galactic has already collected more than $55 million in deposits from 445 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.
To best serve NASA and the research community, Virgin Galactic assembled an expert team of partners to provide payload integration and flight services. This team includes: Southwest Research Institute of Texas; NanoRacks, LLC of Texas; SatWest, LLC of New Mexico and Spaceflight Services of Washington. These partner organizations bring extensive experience flying scientific experiments on high performance jet aircraft, suborbital and orbital rockets, and the International Space Station. Researchers flying experiments onboard SpaceShipTwo will be able to work with these companies directly when desired to allow for the quickest paths to flight.