Virgin Galactic Tapped by NASA to Host Commercial Research Payload

Virgin Galactic, Masten Space Systems and UP Aerospace were among the winners in the  latest round of research flight assignments as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, which makes use of a variety of reusable assets to host small, low-cost research payloads.  Altogether, the agency made 13 awards,  but only four were for payloads on  reusable commercial suborbital vehicles,  with 9 taking placing  on parabolic aircraft flights, and two on high altitude balloons.

The inclusion of Virgin Galactic is particularly noteworthy, as the highly visible company has endured a much longer than anticipated flight testing program, which saw the first atmospheric free flight of its suborbital spacecraft in powered flight configuration take place this past December.  In October 2011,  Virgin was awarded a contingency contract for up to three launches under the NASA program,  which will see experiments launched on a suborbital trajectory aboard its passenger carrying VSS Enterprise, along with a flight engineer to monitor experiments. The company is also seeking to introduce  Launcherone,  a small rocket tailored to the small satellite launch market, which would be ferried to a high altitude launching point by White Knight Two.

Provided it continues to receive a modest level of funding in the upcoming budget, NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program offers the rarest of benefits, a duel leveraging effect on the aerospace industry overall, as both the payloads and the reusable commercial launch vehicles which carry them, help to reduce the cost and mature the technologies for a steadily emerging partnership based model of exploration.

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