Although Virgin Galactic is generally known as a space tourism company, it sees research experiments as a future mission segment and significant business opportunity. To this end, the company has signed a contract with NASA to provide up to three charter flights on its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane. The deal follows the curtain closing on the Space Shuttle program earlier this year and is part of NASA's Flight Opportunities Program, which is charged with providing reduced-gravity environments for research experiments while encouraging the emerging commercial space industry.

The agreement requires NASA to charter a full suborbital flight from Virgin Galactic, with the option for two additional flights. If all options are exercised, the contract value is US$4.5 million. Each mission allows for up to 1,300 lbs (590 kg) of scientific experiments, which Virgin says could enable up to 600 experimental payloads per flight. The Flight Opportunities Program will select the payloads to be flown from a variety of proposals currently being solicited from the research community.

The Flight Opportunities Program has already arranged for the flight of a broad range of scientific payloads designed by NASA labs, universities, and private companies across the United States, but to date, none have yet made it into space. Virgin Galactic says it's SpaceShipTwo offers a significantly larger cabin than any other commercial company taking deposits for space flights today, allowing for a wider range of experiments to be carried out.

"We are excited to be working with NASA to provide the research community with this opportunity to carry out experiments in space," said George Whitesides, President and CEO of Virgin Galactic. "An enormous range of disciplines can benefit from access to space, but historically, such research opportunities have been rare and expensive. At Virgin Galactic, we are fully dedicated to revolutionizing access to space, both for tourist astronauts and, through programs like this, for researchers."

Virgin Galactic says it will provide a Flight Test Engineer on every flight to monitor and interact with the experiments as necessary and, if requested, the experiments can be quickly accessed after landing, which can be critical for many types of experiments.

Although Virgin Galactic didn't say when the NASA-chartered flight/s were due to launch, they are set to be the first experiments flown via the Flight Opportunities Program to cross the boundary into space.