NASA has awarded four US-based firms contracts to carry payloads "near the boundary of space," with the ultimate aim of making suborbital platforms a commercially viable market in the United States.
On Monday, the US space agency said the firms in question will be expected to carry a variety of payloads over the course of three years. Each company will receive "an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract for integration and flight services, drawing from a pool of commercial space companies."
The contracts also have two-year extension options and a minimum value of $100,000 per agreement.
The companies in question are: California-based Masten Space Systems, which won the Lunar Lander X-Prize in 2009 and is currently working with DARPA; Tucson, Arizona-based Paragon Space Development Corp., a developer of space-related hardware; Colorado's Up Aerospace Inc., a creator of suborbital rockets for research payloads, and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, most well-known for space tourism.
Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for Space Technology at the Washington-based NASA Headquarters commented:
"We've made tremendous progress in working toward the goal of regular, frequent and predictable access to near-space at a reasonable cost with easy recovery of intact payloads. These proven flight service providers will allow for payloads from organizations including NASA, industry, academia, and other government agencies to be tested on flights to the edge of space before being committed to demonstration in the harsh environment of space itself."
NASA says that during the coming year, the agency plans to make a number of "significant" new investments to make deep space exploration both safe and affordable -- especially considering today's economic climate.
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