Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has been selected to provide U.S.-based NASA with up to three charter flights on SpaceShipTwo, under a contract with a value of up to $4.5m.

The new, private, space travel program is expected to provide opportunities for engineers, technologists and scientists to conduct cutting-edge experiments in suborbital space. These research flights are regarded as an important milestone for Virgin Galactic, who have recently announced the appointment of Mike Moses, who is NASA's former Space Shuttle Program Chief, as Vice-President of Operations.

We are excited to be working with NASA to provide the research community with this opportunity to carry out experiments in space, stated George Whitesides, President and CEO of Virgin Galactic.

An enormous range of disciplines can benefit from access to space, but historically, such research opportunities have been rare and expensive. At Virgin Galactic, we are fully dedicated to revolutionizing access to space, both for tourist astronauts and, through programs like this, for researchers, he added.

Generally referred to as a space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, according to a release from the company, has already collected more than $58 million in deposits from 455 future tourist astronauts, providing researchers access to space. Their experiments are viewed by Virgin Galactic as both a future mission segment and a significant business opportunity. Each mission allows for up to 1,300 lbs of scientific experiments, which could enable up to 600 experimental payloads per flight.

Virgin Galactic will provide a Flight Test Engineer on every flight to monitor and interact with experiments as necessary, a capability that has never before been available on suborbital vehicles. If requested, these experiments can be quickly accessed after landing, a feature critical to many types of experiments.