WASHINGTON DC: NASA and Virgin Group Ltd agreed to explore possible collaboration on space suits, rocket motors and heat shields for spaceships, the US agency said.
The two-year agreement involves no payments by either partner, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said in a statement on 22 February. Closely held Virgin, run by billionaire Richard Branson, is building a spaceship that it says will carry tourists on suborbital flights within two years for about $200,000 (Rs8.85 crore) a ticket.
“This new type of private-public partnership can benefit the agency while helping to foster a new industry,” said Dan Coughlin, NASA’s lead for the Virgin Galactic agreement.
A private industry could be a powerful ally as NASA works toward its 2010 goal of finishing the half-built space station and retiring the shuttles. NASA says it will mothball the ships even if the orbiting outpost is unfinished.
Last August, the agency awarded contracts worth $485 million to two private companies promising to develop a cargo ship that can reach the International Space Station. NASA expects a four-year gap between the shuttle retirement and its replacement, the Orion vehicle.
In addition to hybrid rocket motors, Virgin and NASA’s Ames Research Center in California may collaborate on hypersonic vehicles that can travel five times the speed of sound, the agency said.
Virgin Galactic, a unit of Branson’s London-based company, is one of at least two companies vying to launch the first commercially owned spaceliner. Virgin is basing its design on SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 carried out the first privately funded, manned spaceflight.
While Russian-built ships have carried tourists to the space station in the past several years, a trip costs $20 million and takes six days. Branson’s Virgin promises to take tourists into space for six minutes of weightlessness.