Courtesy Virgin Galactic
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The new post-shuttle NASA has said it aims to work more cooperatively with private space industry and outside sources of innovation in writing the next chapter in space exploration and science, and the agency is putting its money where its mouth is. After selecting 30 future technology proposals for funding earlier this week, NASA has now inked a number of much larger contracts with seven private space companies–including Virgin Galactic–to integrate and fly various technology payloads aboard their suborbital spacecraft.

We single out Virgin because its SpaceShipTwo is the furthest spacecraft along, development-wise, which means it could soon be ferrying scientific payloads into suborbital space, making it the first commercial company to take that role over from NASA in the post-shuttle era. SpaceShipTwo is already undergoing flight tests and could begin commercial operation as soon as next year (though that’s probably optimistic).

That’s a big deal, because it’s a stepping stone toward fulfilling NASA’s vision of opening up space to more scientists and technology developers, and doing it on someone else’s less-expensive spacecraft. And Virgin isn’t the only company with a dog in this hunt: the other companies splitting the $10 million in contracts are Armadillo Aerospace, Near Space Corp., Masten Space Systems, Up Aerospace Inc., Whittinghill Aerospace LLC, and XCOR.

Many of these companies are looking to carry tourists into space, but the overarching idea of the Flight Opportunities Program (that’s the NASA funding initiative) is to cultivate a variety of ways for researchers to get their experiments–manned or unmanned–into space as well. There’s a lot of benefit to be spread around in doing so.

For one, it opens up suborbital space to groups that couldn’t afford it or simply couldn’t make the manifest on prior NASA missions (which were quite selective and pricey per pound of cargo). It also supports the private space industry by opening up another revenue stream for the Virgins and XCORs and Mastens of the world. But perhaps most importantly for NASA it means a proliferation in space science and technology development, and technologies that fall out of this program just might become part of NASA’s next-gen space transportation model.

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