Today, NASA announced a continuation of its Commercial Crew Development program, the $50m private space flight stimulus handed out last year to the likes of Boeing and SpaceDev. The agency is soliciting concepts for new technology, and may award up to $200m before the program is over. First in line is an unexpected suitor: One Sir Richard Branson, whose eyes seem to be wandering from nascent space tourism industry, over to potentially lucrative NASA contracts.
Branson told Reuters, "There's about four companies that are seriously looking at it (the NASA commercial crew program," and that his company was in communication with at least two to discuss potential partnership on what Branson described as "orbital space vehicles." Whether Virgin Galactic ends up in a partnership or not, Branson definitely seems interested.
And rightly so. His interest may come as a surprise to some, but the stars were aligned for it. The most recent NASA appropriations bill called for a radical re-prioritization in the agency, effectively shutting down its next-generation manned spaceflight initiative, the Constellation program. In lieu of an in-house program, NASA will be depending heavily on private contractors to design and construct the crafts necessary to keep the ISS operational, and to keep research on manned spaceflight moving forward in a general sense. There are hints of this ideological shift in the official CCD2 announcement:
As a continuation of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) initiatives begun in 2009 to stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and demonstrate human spaceflight capabilities, NASA intends to extend efforts to foster activity leading to the development of commercial crew transportation systems. Through this activity, NASA may be able to spur economic growth as capabilities for new space markets are created and reduce the gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability.
Virgin Galactic has shown early successes with the recent high-altitude release of its VSS Enterprise, but is still at least a year away from making good on its promise of sending wealthy tourists into suborbital space, and many years away from going further--it's particularly hard to see how their current technology is comparable to the orbital craft NASA reportedly wants.
Nonetheless, bagging some funding from NASA would expedite Virgin's development of something, and in the event that their plans are successful, result in a hefty contract and years of reliable work. (A contract, or even the promise of a contract, is particularly attractive to a company with no apparent source revenue at the moment.)