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Virgin Galactic to give NASA suborbital rides

NASA will send up to 1,300 pounds of experiments to the edge of space on SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic's privately funded space tourism vehicle.

This rendering shows SpaceShipTwo with its tail section in the feathered re-entry position. Virgin Galactic

With the shuttle program retired, NASA is turning to Virgin Galactic to hitch rides to the edge of space.

Richard Branson's private venture, which aims to be the first commercial space carrier, said it has signed a deal to give the agency up to three charter flights on SpaceShipTwo. The contract could be worth as much as $4.5 million.

The space plane, whose assembly hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port was unveiled last month, will carry at least one science mission with a flight test engineer to monitor experiments.

"Each mission allows for up to 1,300 pounds of scientific experiments, which could enable up to 600 experimental payloads per flight," the company said in a release.

"Providing access to space to researchers and their experiments is viewed by Virgin Galactic as both a future mission segment and a significant business opportunity."

Based on the Ansari X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo is 60 feet long and can carry six passengers and two pilots.

It's designed to launch from a mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, at around 50,000 feet and ascend to the edge of space, some 60 miles above Earth, powered by a hybrid rocket motor.

Passengers, who could start riding the space plane as early as next year, will experience weightlessness and view the curvature of our planet.

Virgin Galactic is selling tickets for a cool $200,000, and says it has more than 450 bookings.

I'm still saving up.