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NASA awards contracts to private spaceflight companies

NASA may have shelved the space shuttle program, but it doesn’t seem to have any trouble finding new projects to invest in.

Just a few days after the U.S. space agency announced plans to fund 30 new space-research projects, NASA directed additional funding to the private sector for development of space-travel initiatives.

According to, NASA awarded $10 million in contracts to seven private companies developing commercial spaceships. The companies will be tasked with sending research payloads into space on manned and unmanned missions, though the flights will remain suborbital (flying into space but not orbiting the Earth).

The two-year contracts are part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, and essentially put the the companies on retainer for an indefinite number of flights.

“This is a big day for commercial space,” Commercial Spaceflight Federation executive director John Gedmark said in a statement. “Just as 1920s airmail purchases helped jumpstart the airline industry, we expect that NASA’s purchases of flights on commercial suborbital vehicles will help accelerate this new industry. Hundreds of scientists, engineers, and educators have attended CSF workshops on the topic of using commercial suborbital vehicles, and we are thrilled to see that the R&D community will now be able to get rides to space.”

Many of the companies awarded contracts already have experience exploring the edge of space, or have worked with NASA in the past to develop high-altitude projects.

One of the companies benefiting from a grant is Armadillo Aerospace, an aerospace start-up founded by Id Software (developers of Doom and Quake) co-founder John Carmack. Armadillo is currently developing a vertical-launching ship capable of carrying passengers and payloads to altitudes above 62 miles.

Also among the contracted companies is Virgin Galactic, whose SpaceShipTwo commercial space plane aims to fly up to eight passengers (including two pilots pilots) to the edge of space. The company has already sold hundreds of tickets for upcoming flights, which are expected to begin in the next few years, carrying space tourists as well as research payloads.

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