Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, LLC announced yesterday the first ever commercial contract to fly scientists into space for the purpose of conducting research experiments.
The agreement signed with the Southwest Research Institute, Texas, is the first of its kind that allows travel for a distance of about 100 kilometers above the Earth to promote valuable research on microgravity, biology, climate and astronomy.
This agreement signals the enormous scientific potential of the Virgin spaceflight system. Virgin Galactic will be able to offer researchers flights to space that are unprecedented in frequency and cost, stated George Whitesides, President and CEO of Virgin Galactic.
As part of the agreement, SwRI has already made full deposits for two researchers to fly on the spacecraft. Besides this, there are similar plans for six additional seats for a total value of $1.6 million.
Initially, two of our payload specialists will be flying on Virgin Galactic, conducting biomedical monitoring, atmospheric imaging, and microgravity planetary regolith experiments, informed Dr. Alan Stern, Associate Vice President of SwRI's Space Division and former NASA Associate Administrator for Science.
Apart from initiating in-house scientific research and programs, SwRI also aims to assist American researchers who do not have direct spaceflight experience to develop and fly their payloads and personnel on suborbital missions.
The Virgin Galactic's spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, is the only crewed suborbital vehicle in flight test today, and the only vehicle based on a spacecraft that has already sent humans into space, the X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne. With the signing of the contract, a whole new chapter has been introduced to pioneer research missions in space.