Article courtesy of Las Cruces Sun-News
LAS CRUCES – Britain-based Virgin Galactic, the anchor tenant company for New Mexico’s spaceport, on Monday announced the first-ever commercial contracts to fly scientists into suborbital space to conduct research.
Virgin Galactic has signed a contract with San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute to fly two researchers to space (more than 328,000 feet – or 62 miles – above Earth). The company plans to purchase an additional six seats, for a total value of $1.6 million, according to Virgin Galactic.
As well as flying its own researchers, who will carry scientific experiments developed by its in-house technical staff, the institute also aims to help American researchers who do not have direct spaceflight experience to develop and fly their payloads and personnel on suborbital missions, according to Virgin Galactic.
Said Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides: “This agreement signals the enormous scientific potential of the Virgin spaceflight system. Virgin Galactic will be able to offer researchers flights to space that are unprecedented in frequency and cost. Science flights will be an important growth area for the company in the years to come …”
The first two researchers will carry out biomedical monitoring and atmospheric imaging experiments, among others, said Alan Stern, associate vice president of the institute’s space division and former NASA associate administrator for science.
The Southwest Research Institute on its website describes itself as “one of the oldest and largest independent, nonprofit, applied research and development organizations in the United States.” Its research ranges from chemistry to space science to engine design to electronics, according to the website.
NASA has opened the door to expand this type of research through its new Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Flight Opportunities program. Though separate from Monday’s announcement, that program will fund future chances for researchers onboard suborbital vehicles.
Spaceport America is a launch site for commercial, suborbital space vehicles that’s under construction in southeastern Sierra County.