NASA engineers, technologists and scientific researchers are planning to hitch a ride to outer space aboard a spaceship owned by Virgin Galactic, British billionaire Richard Branson's private space venture.
The company, which aspires to be the world's first commercial carrier in space, said it has confirmed an order from NASA for one charter suborbital spaceflight so the space agency can conduct experiments.
NASA's order includes options for two additional charter flights, Virgin Galactic said. If all of the options are exercised, the company said, the contract value would amount to $4.5 million.
According to a Virgin Galactic statement, each mission allows for up to 1,300 pounds of equipment for scientific experiments. Virgin Galactic will provide a flight test engineer to monitor and interact with experiments as necessary, a capability that has not been available before on suborbital vehicles.
"We are excited to be working with NASA to provide the research community with this opportunity to carry out experiments in space," said George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic. "An enormous range of disciplines can benefit from access to space, but historically such research opportunities have been rare and expensive."
Virgin Galactic, founded by Branson, hopes to make its first passenger flight sometime next year from the yet-to-be-finished Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Instead of launching a rocket directly into space, a carrier aircraft will fly SpaceShipTwo under its wing to 50,000 feet, where the spaceship will separate and blast off. The craft will climb to the edge of space, or about 60 miles above the Earth's surface.
At that suborbital altitude, passengers will experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth. The company said it has taken about 455 reservations for the ride. The price per flight for a wannabe space tourist is $200,000.
Virgin Galactic's carrier aircraft and spaceships are made by Spaceship Co. in Mojave, Calif., where they are currently undergoing test flights.
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