Virgin Galactic Banks on Scientists for Commercial Space Flight Business

Running a commercial space flight business isn't easy when launching passengers is a six-figure proposition; there are only so many rich adventurers who want to exit Earth's atmosphere. So instead of relying only on private passengers, Virgin Galactic is expanding its business to include scientists eager to conduct research in space. This week, the company announced the first commercial contract to fly scientists into space to conduct research.

The contract, signed with the Southwest Research Institute, will send a total of eight researchers into space on Virgin Galactic spacecrafts at a cost of $1.6 million. So far, SWI has put down deposits for two seats on a spacecraft. It plans on securing the other six spots soon.

SWI won't just fly its own researchers on Virgin Galactic; it will also help other American research institutes to develop and fly payloads and personnel into space. But first, SWI will fly two of its own researchers into space to perform atmospheric imaging, biomedical monitoring, and planetary soil experiments.

"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. Science flights will be an important growth area for the company in the years to come, building on the strong commercial success already demonstrated by deposits received from over 400 individuals for Virgin’s space experience," said George Whitesides, President and CEO of Virgin Galactic, in a statement.

In the future, then, scientists won't have to be chummy with NASA to get their research on a flight. They will just have to pay up.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.

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