NASA has booked a charter suborbital flight on Virgin Galactic -- the company owned by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS -- which aims to become the world's first commercial spaceline.
The agreement, worth up to $4.5 million, gives NASA a full charter space flight on Virgin Galactic for a research mission. The deal also includes options for two additional flights on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, the air-launched spacecraft designed to carry eight people on trips to suborbital space.
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, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic, in a statement.
An enormous range of disciplines can benefit from access to space, but historically, such research opportunities have been rare and expensive, Whitesides added. At Virgin Galactic, we are fully dedicated to revolutionizing access to space, both for tourist astronauts and, through programs like this, for researchers.
Virgin Galactic said each research mission allows for up to 1,300 pounds of scientific experiments. Virgin Galactic will also provide a flight test engineer on every mission to help monitor and conduct experiments as needed or desired, the company said.
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NASA's charter flight or flights will be from Virgin Galactic's spaceport operations in southern New Mexico, the company said.
The deal's announcement from Virgin Galactic comes just days after Virgin Galactic said it had hired former NASA executive Michael Moses to become the company's vice president of operations. Moses will oversee all operations in New Mexico, the site of Virgin's commercial suborbital spaceflight program.
I am extremely excited to be joining Virgin Galactic at this time, helping to forge the foundations that will enable routine commercial suborbital spaceflights, Moses said in a statement. Virgin Galactic will expand the legacy of human spaceflight beyond traditional government programs into the world's first privately funded commercial spaceline.
Virgin Galactic is scheduled to dedicate its Spaceport America headquarters at the site in New Mexico on Monday.