Virgin Galactic's Spaceport America operations base will be equally busy carrying to sub-orbit research payloads and space tourists, say developers at the newly dedicated facility here.

Although initiated as the gateway for sub-orbital passenger flights for Virgin Galactic's spaceline, the growing interest in non-human payloads looks set to be a pivotal part of the operation's bottom line. As if to underscore the drive for a balanced portfolio, Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic commercial director, began his comments at the Oct. 17 dedication ceremony by listing the lengthening roster of reservations from research organizations, institutes and educational groups.

Heading the line-up is NASA and the Flight Opportunities program which, on the eve of the dedication event, firmed up one of three suborbital research missions aboard Virgin's SpaceShipTwo (SS2) vehicle. The contract is valued at up to $4.5 million if all flights are confirmed over the next two years, says Virgin. Each mission from the spaceport will carry up to 1,300 lb. of science equipment, enough to accommodate as many as 600 experimental payloads on a single flight.

In addition to Virgin Galactic, the other six companies selected in August to fly NASA science and technology payloads under a combined $10 million, two-year contract are: Armadillo Aerospace, Near Space Corp., Masten Space Systems, Up Aerospace, Whittinghill Aerospace and XCOR. Virgin, Up and Near Space have been awarded 10 firm flights between them. The others will be cleared to submit requests for proposals once they have successfully demonstrated a flight on a qualifying or prototype vehicle.

NASA Flight Opportunities Program Manager John Kelly says he is encouraged by progress to date and the fact that so many flights have been contracted for a relatively small part of the program's $10 million budget. “We've put forward about a third of that for tasks so far. That's a good sign. We have 10 firm orders for flights we could exercise this [fiscal] year, if we can manage the demand side. I can easily see us fly a dozen flights this year,” he says.

Buoyed by the early interest in its initiative, NASA is poised to issue a renewed call for research payloads. In the longer term, the agency is also laying out early plans to issue a request for additional platforms, though Kelly cautions that “we're just beginning a two-year period of performance, and as this gets underway, we will start working on the next series.”

William Pomerantz, vice president for special projects at Virgin Galactic, says it is yet to be determined whether any of the research flights will precede passenger flights. “We're still working out the schedule. We have to figure out what is the safest and makes the most sense. It's an interesting balancing act. NASA is also a customer for this vehicle and we have to allow the time for them to feel more confident about it.”

Pomerantz says for the research flights, “we will keep one seat in place in the cabin [for an observer or experiment technician] and install experiments in the other six racks. They are designed to accommodate cubesat and mid-deck locker standard payloads. We'll see what the scientific community wants—we want to make sure they know how much time they have available for microgravity experiments. We're also looking for other opportunities for research.”

Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company (TSC), a joint venture between Virgin and SS2-developer Scaled Composites, are meanwhile both establishing supply chains in the buildup to production and service entry. To help the process, which will be a first for commercial space, they invited 130 companies and organizations to the group's first industry day on Oct. 18. Held in cooperation with the New Mexico Spaceport Authority at Spaceport America, the event was designed to inform potential suppliers on goods and services that will be needed by the two companies to support commercial space operations in the state.

Virgin Galactic's supply chain manager, Sean Jodain, says “a lot of eyes opened wide” during the industry meeting when potential suppliers were briefed on requirements for everything from catering and flight suits for the passengers to delivery of liquid nitrogen oxide, the oxidizer for SS2's hybrid rocket motor. “To me, the biggest thing was the innovation which came out of it, with various suppliers coming up with new solutions,” says Jodain. “Now I have to develop a supply chain, and the rules of the road.”

TSC Vice President Enrico Palermo says, “we are trying to spread the word, and letting them know the opportunities. This is the start of a new industry. We're looking for companies to get involved, and grow with us and be on the journey with us. They will share the risk and reward.” Palermo adds that the initiative will also leverage the industrial clout and management expertise of the Virgin Group, in particular the success of its U.S.-based airline, Virgin America.

Spaceport's main hangar is the world's first purpose-designed launch facility for space tourism and sub-orbital science flights. Vertical launches have been occurring at the remote site since 2006, taking advantage of restricted airspace over the adjacent White Sands Missile Range. While these will continue, the main focus remains on gearing up for SS2 sub-orbital flights within two years.

About one-third of the 460 individuals so far signed up for sub-orbital flights were on hand for the dedication of what Virgin founder Richard Branson describes as “a 21st-century building for a 21st-century business.” Spaceport will be the operating hub for Virgin Galactic and is expected to house up to two WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft and five SS2s when fully operational sometime after 2013. The site will also serve as the base for all of Virgin's astronaut preparation facilities and mission control. Construction has been conducted as part of a 20-year lease agreement between the State of New Mexico and Virgin Galactic, Spaceport America's anchor tenant.