NASA books flights on private 'spaceline'

October 19, 2011

Spaceshiptwo SpaceShipTwo at its unveiling in Mojave, Calif. The spaceship is designed for suborbital space tourism flights. Photo credit: Jack Brockway

NASA has entered into an agreement with Virgin Galactic, “the world’s first commercial spaceline,” to embark on up to three scientific research flights in suborbital space.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry six passengers and two pilots, will undertake missions that will provide opportunities for engineers, technologists, and other researchers to conduct experiments for projects to be selected by NASA.

“The agreement calls for NASA to charter a full flight from Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline, and includes options for two additional charter flights. If all options are exercised, the contract value is $4.5 million,” the company said in a news release posted on its website.

Virgin Galactic said that each mission “could enable up to 600 experimental payloads per flight.” A flight test engineer would be provided on every flight, a previously unavailable capability, it said.

“An enormous range of disciplines can benefit from access to space, but historically, such research opportunities have been rare and expensive,” said George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic president and CEO.

NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program will select payloads to fly aboard SpaceShipTwo, the announcement said.

Virgin Galactic describes SpaceShipTwo as “the only crewed suborbital vehicle in flight test today, and the only such vehicle based on a commercial spacecraft that has already sent humans into space.” That spacecraft, aircraft designer Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, first flew in June 2004, reaching an altitude 328,491 feet, with pilot Mike Melvill at the controls.

Virgin Galactic said the agreement with NASA marked a significant potential business opportunity—and a milestone indicating that the company had moved beyond its general public perception as a space tourism venture. To date the company has collected deposits totaling more than $58 million “from 455 future tourist astronauts.”

SpaceShipTwo was unveiled in December 2009 in Mojave, Calif., with Rutan and Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson on hand to reveal the carbon-composite product of the joint venture between Branson’s enterprise and Rutan’s company Scaled Composites. Virgin Galactic’s goal is to launch daily space tourism flights from its newly dedicated Spaceport America in New Mexico.

SpaceShipTwo’s mother ship, the all-composite WhiteKnightTwo, will transport the spaceship above 50,000 feet, at which altitude, SpaceShipTwo will detach and fire its hybrid rocket motor to continue its ascent, Virgin Galactic said when the spacecraft was unveiled.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.