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NASA Flying Into Space Commercially With Virgin, For The Very First Time

virgin galactic

We knew Virgin Galactic had hopes of using its capacious SpaceShipTwo-class reusable spaceplanes for more than just joyrides into zero-g, but NASA's new contract with the fledgling space company is a milestone for the entire business, as well as Richard Branson's wackiest venture. As Virgin notes, "this arrangement marks the first time that NASA has contracted with a commercial partner to provide flights into space on a suboribtal spacecraft."

The decision came out of NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist, source of some of the most paradigm-changing pieces of news from NASA recently, and it's technically a further step in a program that's already seen NASA technology flights on low-altitude rockets. And you can see why NASA's made the decision: Inside the 3.7 by 2.3 meter cabin of a SpaceShipTwo, plenty of scientific payloads can be hauled up Earth's gravity well to gain a precious few moments in the zero gravity of space—and there's room for flight specialists too, who can monitor and tweak the experiments in a way that wouldn't be possible on an automated low-altitude rocket.

It's not the precise, long-duration environment that the interior of the Space Shuttle offered, nor the huge size of the labs aboard the International Space Station, but it's cheap and accessible, and since the flights only last a couple of hours it's possible to fly an experiment, do the research, wait for the ship to land, tweak it or load in a modified payload, and fly it again. Which opens up whole new vistas of academic and engineering research.

Virgin Galactic, the press release notes, is often considered a "space tourism company," and it's collected some $55 million in deposits from future space tourists, but it's taking its role as a scientific lab assistant pretty seriously and has garnered assistance from the Southwest Research Institute, NanoRacks (who are already expert in sending small-scale experiments to the ISS) and a number of other spaceflight and payload integration specialists.

To a certain extent, NASA's hands were tied. In the new era of the space business, with its trademark Shuttle grounded forever and only limited access to the ISS via European, Russian, and (in several years) commercial rockets, NASA has to look for other ways to access microgravity. And though other commercial space companies make a lot of noise about their future, Virgin Galactic is the only one with a space vehicle in advanced flight test phases.

[Image: Flickr user Jeff Foust]

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  • Anthony Voutas

    "Virgin Galactic is the only one with a space vehicle in advanced flight test phases."

    This isn't entirely accurate, especially considering SpaceX is going to the ISS in November.

  • Scott A. Wolf

    The prostitutes of both parties are to blame, they cannot see beyond their attempts to remain in power, groveling in their own filth, for dollars. Yet this kind of phenom goes in cycles. My Uncle worked on the life support systems of the Gemini  capsule in the 60's. When the program  finished he worked for Ovation guitars designing the bridges of their axes. As a talented Mech E, he had options, If you are any skilled, you will do fine.

  • Wize Adz

    Wow, NASA is back to sub-orbital man space flights?  Mad props to Alan Shepard, but he already boldly went where Virgin Galactic is going in 1959.

    I really hope that this new space policy works out, and I understand the reasoning behind it.  But, speaking as a kid who drank the Shuttle and ISS kool-aid in the 1980s and who was inspired in to an engineering/science related career, a gigantic step backward like this is quite underwhelming.

    Also, the resumption of the Republican War on Science has put the jobs of many of my co-workers jobs at extreme risk, so it's likely that my services will available to any genuinely inspiring commercial space program with a strong need for computational modeling and simulation in the very near future...!  Thank you, Republican congress.  :-(

    Virgin, NASA, and the Rutans: If you dudes need a hand doing the calculations required to get in to orbit, let me know.  PLEASE!