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NASA, Virgin Galactic Explore Partnership

Sign MOUs For Spacecraft Development, Training

Things appear to be coming full-circle for commercial spaceflight. Officials with NASA signed a memorandum of understanding Tuesday with Virgin Galactic, LLC to explore the potential for collaborations on the development of space suits, heat shields for spaceships, hybrid rocket motors and hypersonic vehicles capable of traveling five or more times the speed of sound.

Under the terms of the memorandum, NASA Ames Research Center, located in California's Silicon Valley, and US-based Virgin Galactic LLC, a subsidiary of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, will explore possible collaborations in several technical areas employing capabilities and facilities of NASA's Ames Research Center.

London's Daily Telegraph newspaper reports some agreements have already been made. Most notably, NASA astronauts in earlier stages of their training will be among the first groups of passengers slated to ride into suborbital space aboard Virgin's SpaceShipTwo, when flights begin in 2008.

"As we constantly seek to build upon the advances made by explorers who have come before us, we now embark upon an exciting time in space exploration history that realizes the unlimited opportunities presented by a commercial space economy," said Shana Dale, NASA's deputy administrator. "By encouraging such potential collaborations, NASA supports the development of greater commercial collaboration and applications that will serve to strengthen and enhance the future benefits of space exploration for all of mankind."

Dale is a longtime supporter of commercial space development. As the former staff director of the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, she was instrumental in the passage of the Commercial Space Act of 1998. This legislation encourages commercial space development in a variety of areas, including launch vehicles, the International Space Station and the acquisition of space and Earth science data.

"This understanding with Virgin Galactic affords NASA an opportunity to work with an emerging company in the commercial human space transportation industry to support the agency's exploration, science and aeronautics mission goals," said S. Pete Worden, director of NASA Ames Research Center. "Our location in California's Silicon Valley provides a dynamic research and development platform for future potential collaborations with other such companies in support of a robust commercial space industry."

"We are excited to be working with NASA and look forward to future collaborations in exploration and space travel," said Alex Tai, vice president of operations for Virgin Galactic.

The agreement with Virgin Galactic was negotiated through NASA's Space Portal, a newly formed organization in the NASA Research Park at Ames, which seeks to engage new opportunities for NASA to promote the development of the commercial space economy.

"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.

The memorandum of understanding will be in effect for two years, and stipulates that neither NASA nor Virgin Galactic will be required to pay any fees or provide funds to support the areas of possible collaboration.

FMI: www.nasa.gov, www.virgingalactic.com

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