Image: Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic
NASA is interested in what science can be done during the three- to five-minute suborbital hops promised on commercial suborbital flights such as on Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Two, shown here.
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updated 1/14/2009 12:54:23 PM ET 2009-01-14T17:54:23

There's a new customer lining up for rides aboard commercial spaceships being designed to ferry passengers into suborbital space — NASA.

No, the U. S. government isn't looking to break into the space tourism business — at least not yet. But the agency is interested in what science can be done during the three- to five-minute suborbital hops.

That's how much time experiments — and tourists — would spend in microgravity during rides being offered by aspiring space launch services firms including Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace and others.

"You have this whole community of scientists who have been passionate about space their whole lives," said John Gedmark, who oversees the Washington, D.C.-based Personal Spaceflight Federation, a trade group for the fledging industry.

"All of a sudden, they're going to get to go fly in space," Gedmark said. "It's not just going to be astronauts."

NASA is reviewing 20 proposals from scientists interested in participating in the program. The agency has about $400,000 to fund up to eight study grants, said Jonathan Rall, with NASA's Planetary Sciences division at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"This is a neat opportunity to get something into the near-space environment," Rall told Discovery News. "The cost is many of orders of magnitude less than flying on a (Russian) Soyuz or the shuttle."

The fares, which so far range from $95,000 to $200,000 depending on the service provider, also are far less costly than flying experiments on small, one-time-use launch vehicles known as sounding rockets, added project manager Lisa Chu-Thielbar at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 "On a sounding rocket, you may have as long as 20 minutes (in weightlessness), but those experiments cost close to $1 million and you may or may not get your payload back," Chu-Thielbar told Discovery News.

Also, not all experiments are suitable for sounding rockets.

"The Earth Sciences people want vertical profiles of the atmosphere — all the way up and all the way down. They want to do it regularly over a period of time, say once a week for a year. That would be an incredible data set that could really help enormously in understanding global climate change issues, for example," Chu-Thielbar said.

The program also has attracted scientists who have been conducting experiments during parabolic flights, which mimic microgravity with 20- to 30-second freefalls through the atmosphere aboard jet aircraft.

"When we said (to a scientist) that he might get three to four minutes of microgravity, he lit up like a Christmas tree," Chu-Thielbar said.

In addition to studies of Earth's atmosphere, scientists have proposed particle physics experiments, a genetics test, investigations to monitor the sun, an astrophysical experiment related to the theory of relativity, and several materials science exposure runs, NASA said.

The proposals are being reviewed by an outside panel of experts and a decision about which projects will receive funding for additional study is expected around March.

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© 2012 Discovery Channel

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