NASA has given seven different private space firms contracts worth a combined $10 million, signaling the growing importance of private firms capable of supporting NASA's efforts in the post-shuttle era.

Each of the seven companies will receive two-year contracts to transport unspecified payloads into sub-orbit, saying only that the materials aboard the reusable capsules would address "the agency [NASA]'s research and technology needs." The move is the latest instance of NASA nurturing the burgeoning private space industry, recognizing that the government may increasingly rely upon private contractors.

"Through this catalog approach, NASA is moving toward the goal of making frequent, low-cost access to near-space available to a wide range of engineers, scientists and technologists," NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun said in a statement. "The government's ability to open the suborbital research frontier to a broad community of innovators will enable maturation of the new technologies and capabilities needed for NASA's future missions in space."

The seven firms are: Armadillo Aerospace; Near Space Corp; Masten Space Systems; Up Aerospace Inc.; Virgin Galactic; Whittinghill Aerospace LLC; and XCOR. Some of these firms are looking to become pioneers in space tourism -- Virgin Galactic has already sold hundreds of seats on its SpaceShipTwo.

"This is a big day for commercial space," Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) Executive Director John Gedmark said in a statement. "Just as 1920s air mail purchases helped jumpstart the airline industry, we expect that NASA's purchases of flights on commercial suborbital vehicles will help accelerate this new industry.

This is not the first instance of NASA giving contracts to the private sector. In April, NASA distributed $269.3 million between five U.S. aerospace companies that are busy developing systems to transport astronauts to the International Space Station now that Atlantis, NASA's final shuttle, is grounded (in the meantime, American astronauts will be paying Russia $43.4 million per seat for the privilege). Space Exploration Technologies Corp. said it is on pace to offer space flights for about $20 million a seat.