NASA has awarded contracts to seven companies for payload integration and suborbital flight.
The two-year contracts, worth $10m altogether, include such well-known companies as Virgin Galactic, Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Aerospace and XCOR as well as lesser-known companies Near Space Corporation (a high-altitude balloon manufacturer), Up Aerospace and Whittinghill Aerospace (small rocket manufacturers).
The contracts are not payload-specific. NASA is using the contracts to create a reliable pool of available suborbital launch services with a wide range of capabilities.
"Through this catalog approach, NASA is moving toward the goal of making frequent, low-cost access to near-space available to a wide range of engineers, scientists and technologists," said NASA chief technologist Bobby Braun. "The government's ability to open the suborbital research frontier to a broad community of innovators will enable maturation of the new technologies and capabilities needed for NASA's future missions in space."
The NASA's flight opportunities programme under which the contracts were awarded is an agglomeration of a number of similar activities. A previous competition, called the commercial reusable suborbital research (CRuSR) program, was superseded by the suborbital contracts awarded.
"These are actually the vehicles that we are trying to develop, to mature the technologies, to mature the vehicles," said NASA, "they're the ones that are closest to having a vehicle available to launch suborbital."
The companies will be responsible for development, operation and payload integration. None of the contracted companies were immediately available for comment.
NASA announced in an earlier release that payloads will include autonomous landing systems for unmanned aerial vehicles, automated dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) testing modules and microgravity fuel-transfer systems.