NASA has selected seven commercial spacelines to fly suborbital missions intended for scientific research, including Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and the Near Space Corp. Each contract for multiple suborbital flights using reusable platforms will deliver various technological payloads into space. The first such agreement between the US space agency and commercial spacelines, the exact contents of those payloads will be selected by independent research teams making proposals to NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program.
Those selected will get to send their experiments and test hardware on crafts like Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, the crewed suborbital vehicle based on the company's award-winning SpaceShipOne. According to Virgin, the craft's roomier cabin means larger payloads will be supported; important if you consider that many of these experiments will only get one shot at low-gravity testing.
NASA expects to spend $10m on the two-year contracts, a pittance in comparison to what it cost to send something like the Space Shuttle up into orbit. Several rounds of project submissions have already been accepted, using Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems flights to altitudes ranging from 15km to 40km.
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic has announced that it has already collected in excess of $55m in deposits from would-be tourist astronauts, though the exact date when those 445 wealthy travelers will take off is still unclear.