Space fans saddened by the retiring of the space shuttle Endeavor last week will be excited to learn that NASA has contracted a private spacecraft for at least one chartered flight into near space. The U.S. space agency has confirmed a deal with Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's private-sector space initiative, for one suborbital flight on the company's spacecraft SpaceShip Two, with the option of two additional flights.  If all options are exercised, the total cost of the three flights will be $4.5 million.

Each flight could carry up to 1,300 pounds' worth of experiments and equipment and could enable up to 600 experimental payloads per flight, according to a statement released by Virgin Galactic. The flights would be manned and monitored by a flight test engineer provided by Virgin Galactic.

News of the contract came fast on the heels of another announcement that Mike Moses, launch integration manager for NASA's space shuttle program, had been named Virgin Galactic's Vice President of Operations. In that capacity, Mr. Moses will oversee the team responsible for the company's logistics, flight crew operations, customer training, spaceport ground operations, focusing primarily on overall operational safety and risk management.

Bringing Mike in to lead the team represents a significant investment in our commitment to operational safety and success as we prepare to launch commercial operations, said Virgin Galactic President and CEO, George Whitesides, in the release. His experience and track record in all facets of spaceflight operations are truly unique. His forward-thinking perspective to bring the hard-won lessons of human spaceflight into our operations will benefit us tremendously.

I am extremely excited to be joining Virgin Galactic at this time, helping to forge the foundations that will enable routine commercial suborbital spaceflights, said Mr. Moses. Virgin Galactic will expand the legacy of human spaceflight beyond traditional government programs into the world's first privately funded commercial spaceline.

In an interview with Reuters, Moses went on to say that he's onboard with NASA's plan to build a heavy-lift rocket and capsule to fly astronauts into space, but wanted to take his expertise into the private sector. It's just that the operations of that system were still eight to 10 years away, Moses told Reuters. I couldn't just push paper around and write requirements for the next 10 years so I'm going to take another shot at it here in the commercial sector.

Virgin Galactic, which has referred to itself as the world's first commercial spaceline, has already sent humans into space and collected more than $58 million in deposits from 455 would-be astronauts. With the hiring of Moses and the securing of the NASA contract, the space tourism company appears eager to expand into the potentially lucrative area of government subcontracting and is assembling a credentialed team for the job.