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NASA, Virgin Galactic Eye Cooperative Efforts

NASA isstudying the potential of future cooperation with the suborbital tourism firm Virgin Galacticon a variety of fronts, agency officials announced Wednesday.

AMemorandum of Understanding between the U.S. space agency and Virgin Galactic,signed Tuesday, will allow NASA to eye future collaboration with the spacetourism firm on the development of spacesuits,spacecraftheat shields, hybridrocket motors and hypersonicvehicles.

"Byencouraging such potential collaborations, NASA supports the development ofgreater commercial collaboration and applications that will serve to strengthenand enhance the future benefits of space exploration for all of mankind," ShanaDale, NASA's deputy administrator, said in a statement.

Foundedby British billionaireSir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic is building a fleet of five SpaceShipTwospacecraft to carry paying passengers on suborbital spaceflights basedfirst out New Mexico'sSpaceport America in 2008 and followed by flights from Kiruna, Swedenin 2012. Designed by aerospace veteran Burt Rutan,the SpaceShipTwo vehicle is an evolved version of SpaceShipOne,which won the $10million suborbital Ansari X Prize competition for reusable, privately-builtcrewed spacecraft in 2004.

"Weare excited to be working with NASA and look forward to future collaborationsin exploration and space travel," Alex Tai, vice president of operationsfor Virgin Galactic, said in a statement.

Underthe memorandum, NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California willstudy the possibility of future collaboration with Virgin Galactic for a periodof two years, though no funds will be exchanged between the two entities.

NASAofficials stressed that the memorandum does not include provisions for astronauttraining, the purchase of future seatsaboard Virgin Galactic spacecraft or the supply of technical advice to theprivate spaceflight firm.

Theannouncement, however, comes after NASA pledged earlierthis month to provide technical support, but now funding, for two otherprivate spaceflight efforts by the Chicago-based firm PlanetSpace,Inc. and TransformationSpace Corp. (t/Space) or Reston, Virginia.

Stillanother pair of private spaceflight companies developing crew and cargospacecraft with NASA funding -- California's SpaceExploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Oklahoma-based RocketplaneKistler -- passed major milestones last week under the space agency's Commercial OrbitalTransportation System (COTS).

NASAis studying the possibility of commercial crew and cargo delivery services tothe ISS to fill in the gap between the planned 2010 retirement of the agency's shuttle fleet and first crewedflights of its capsule-based OrionCrew Exploration Vehicles in 2014.

SpaceX'spreliminary design review of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew and cargospacecraft received NASA approval this month, the space agency has said.Meanwhile, Rocketplane Kistler set requirements for the interfaces between itstwo-stage, reusable K-1 cargo transportation system and the International SpaceStation (ISS).

"Aswe constantly seek to build upon the advances made by explorers who have comebefore us, we now embark upon an exciting time in space exploration historythat realizes the unlimited opportunities presented by a commercial spaceeconomy," Dale said in the agency's Wednesday statement.

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