Under the deal, NASA will charter up to three flights on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, an air-launched spacecraft designed to carry eight people on trips to suborbital space.
The announcement comes just two days after Virgin Galactic announced that Mike Moses, NASA's former deputy space shuttle program chief, had joined the company's ranks as vice president of operations.
"We are excited to be working with NASA to provide the research community with this opportunity to carry out experiments in space, said George Whitesides, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic, in a statement.
"An enormous range of disciplines can benefit from access to space, but historically, such research opportunities have been rare and expensive," Whitesides added. "At Virgin Galactic, we are fully dedicated to revolutionizing access to space, both for tourist astronauts and, through programs like this, for researchers."
NASA research flights
Each suborbital spaceflight for NASA could carry up to 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms) of scientific experiments, allowing up to 600 different payloads per mission, Virgin Galactic officials said.
The company will provide a flight test engineer on every mission to help monitor and conduct experiments as necessary, they added.
In the deal, NASA committed to chartering one flight with Virgin Galactic, with options for two more. If the space agency exercises those options and charters all three flights, the contract will be worth $4.5 million, officials said.
NASA shuttle veteran comes aboard
Virgin Galactic just announced Tuesday (Oct. 11) that it was hiring Mike Moses, NASA's former space shuttle launch integration manager, to become its vice president of operations.
In this role, Moses will oversee all operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico, the site of Virgin's commercial suborbital spaceflight program. The company is slated to dedicate its headquarters at the spaceport this coming Monday (Oct. 17).
Moses has considerable experience overseeing human spaceflight operations, most recently serving as NASA's deputy space shuttle program chief. He provided ultimate launch decision authority for the final 12 missions of the now-retired shuttle program, which lofted 75 astronauts to orbit.
"Bringing Mike in to lead the team represents a significant investment in our commitment to operational safety and success as we prepare to launch commercial operations," Whitesides said.
Moses had worked as a space shuttle flight controller for 10 years before being selected as a flight director in 2005. He said he was happy to be making the leap to the private sector.
"I am extremely excited to be joining Virgin Galactic at this time, helping to forge the foundations that will enable routine commercial suborbital spaceflights," he said in a statement. "Virgin Galactic will expand the legacy of human spaceflight beyond traditional government programs into the world’s first privately funded commercial spaceline."