NASA is studying the potential of future cooperation with the suborbital tourism firm Virgin Galactic on a variety of fronts, agency officials announced Wednesday.
A Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. space agency and Virgin Galactic, signed Tuesday, will allow NASA to eye future collaboration with the space tourism firm on the development of spacesuits, spacecraft heat shields, hybrid rocket motors and hypersonic vehicles.
"By encouraging such potential collaborations, NASA supports the development of greater commercial collaboration and applications that will serve to strengthen and enhance the future benefits of space exploration for all of mankind," Shana Dale, NASA's deputy administrator, said in a statement.
Founded by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic is building a fleet of five SpaceShipTwo spacecraft to carry paying passengers on suborbital spaceflights based first out New Mexico's Spaceport America in 2008 and followed by flights from Kiruna, Sweden in 2012. Designed by aerospace veteran Burt Rutan, the SpaceShipTwo vehicle is an evolved version of SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million suborbital Ansari X Prize competition for reusable, privately-built crewed spacecraft in 2004.
"We are excited to be working with NASA and look forward to future collaborations in exploration and space travel," Alex Tai, vice president of operations for Virgin Galactic, said in a statement.
Under the memorandum, NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California will study the possibility of future collaboration with Virgin Galactic for a period of two years, though no funds will be exchanged between the two entities.
NASA officials stressed that the memorandum does not include provisions for astronaut training, the purchase of future seats aboard Virgin Galactic spacecraft or the supply of technical advice to the private spaceflight firm.
The announcement, however, comes after NASA pledged earlier this month to provide technical support, but now funding, for two other private spaceflight efforts by the Chicago-based firm PlanetSpace, Inc. and Transformation Space Corp. (t/Space) or Reston, Virginia.
Still another pair of private spaceflight companies developing crew and cargo spacecraft with NASA funding -- California's Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler -- passed major milestones last week under the space agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS).
NASA is studying the possibility of commercial crew and cargo delivery services to the ISS to fill in the gap between the planned 2010 retirement of the agency's shuttle fleet and first crewed flights of its capsule-based Orion Crew Exploration Vehicles in 2014.
SpaceX's preliminary design review of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew and cargo spacecraft received NASA approval this month, the space agency has said. Meanwhile, Rocketplane Kistler set requirements for the interfaces between its two-stage, reusable K-1 cargo transportation system and the International Space Station (ISS).
"As we constantly seek to build upon the advances made by explorers who have come before us, we now embark upon an exciting time in space exploration history that realizes the unlimited opportunities presented by a commercial space economy," Dale said in the agency's Wednesday statement.
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