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Space worlds collide

Burt Rutan, the iconoclastic aerospace designer behind Virgin Galactic's fleet of suborbital spaceships, is fond of saying that NASA (or "Naysay," as he jokingly pronounces it) stands for "No Adult Supervision Apparent." His California-based company, Scaled Composites, and the Virgin Galactic team have been cast as nimble mammals, running rings around the dinosaurs of the traditional space establishment. Was there ever an instance of mammals and dinosaurs helping each other out? Well, in the space business there is: Today NASA announced an agreement with Virgin Galactic to collaborate on items ranging from spacesuits to spaceships.

NASA's news release said a memorandum of understanding called for the agency's Ames Research Center to work together with Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, to "explore possible collaborations in several technical areas, including hybrid rocket motors and hypersonic vehicles capable of traveling five or more times the speed of sound, employing NASA Ames' unique capabilities and world-class facilities."

NASA said the agreement was negotiated through NASA's Space Portal, a newly formed organization in the NASA Research Park at Ames that looks for ways to promote the development of the commercial space economy. The space agency said that the pact would be in effect for two years, and that neither party would be required to pay the other to support the areas of possible collaboration.

"This new type of private-public partnership can benefit the agency while helping to foster a new industry," said Dan Coughlin, NASA's lead for the Virgin Galactic agreement. Virgin Galactic's vice president of operations, Alex Tai, said in the same statement that he and his colleagues are "excited to be working with NASA and look forward to future collaborations in exploration and space travel."

Today's statement must have caused a stir in some quarters, because later in the day, the agency sent out some "additional information":

"NASA officials signed a memorandum of understanding Tuesday with a U.S. company, Virgin Galactic, LLC, to explore the potential for collaborations on the development of space suits, heat shields for spaceships, hybrid rocket motors and hypersonic vehicles capable of traveling five or more times the speed of sound.

"The memorandum is only a framework to explore potential collaborations. It does not include training of NASA astronauts, an agreement to buy seats on a Virgin Galactic flight, or provision of technical advice by NASA to Virgin Galactic."

In advance of NASA's announcement, Flight International reported that Virgin Galactic is planning to develop a new generation of spaceships capable of making suborbital trips between point A and point B. Such point-to-point travel requires more oomph than the up-and-down flights conducted by SpaceShipOne and expected for SpaceShipTwo. Thus, Virgin Galactic will eventually need bigger engines and more robust hypersonic vehicles. That may well be the subject of future collaboration - covered under agreements following up on the memorandum announced today.

When it comes to NASA's support of commercial spaceflight, Virgin Galactic isn't the only game in town: The agency is funding development efforts by SpaceX and Rocketplane, giving free advice to Planetspace and t/Space - and already starting to talk about commercial opportunities on the moon.

Is NASA just a dinosaur in mammalian clothing, or is it really evolving? Feel free to add your comments below.