Space Florida will pay to fly a scientist and student experiments from Florida on Virgin Galactic's suborbital spaceship, an investment intended to stimulate interest in science and technology education and boost the state's role in space-based research.
The state agency's board on Wednesday unanimously approved spending up to $400,000 for two seats on a flight.
"We want to be able to position Florida to be the ground node for a lot of that kind of access," Space Florida President Frank DiBello said during the meeting in Fort Lauderdale.
A competition is planned to select the researcher and payloads to be flown in microgravity for about five minutes on Virgin's SpaceShipTwo, which would take off with a carrier aircraft from the company's New Mexico spaceport.
DiBello said a doctoral-level scientist would occupy one seat and a rack holding eight experiment compartments would occupy the equivalent of another seat.
At least four of the compartments are expected to be filled through a statewide university competition. A similar process at the high school level could fill the remaining slots.
"Students will be designing payloads," DiBello said. "We don't have the wherewithal to fund education, but we can stimulate advancement in technology and get our universities involved."
Virgin's primary business is space tourism, offering passengers able to pay $200,000 a ticket the chance to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of Earth for a few minutes. The company hopes to have those flights up and running by 2013.
But Virgin and other suborbital vehicle providers are branching out into science research missions.
NASA recently announced plans to fly experiments on up to seven different commercial suborbital vehicles, including Virgin's. The Southwest Research Institute led the way this year with an agreement to fly several researchers and experiments on SpaceShipTwo and XCOR Aerospace's Lynx Mark I vehicle.
A Space Florida official said market research showed that even short periods of microgravity, and the varying levels of G-forces experienced during suborbital flights, are considered valuable and affordable test beds.
"Even things that occur in 10- to 30-second intervals provide great feedback for people either developing hardware or other items that will go to space, so it's an incredible platform for testing," said Howard Haug, the agency's treasurer.
In addition to the educational motives of buying tickets on a Virgin flight, Space Florida envisions establishing a local base of customers for suborbital research that will eventually lead that company and others to fly from Florida.
"We're trying to develop the demand and the customer interest in this program, and eventually things like Virgin Galactic will now start launching science here regularly," Haug said.
Space Florida is growing its role in orbital research as well. NASA this year named a nonprofit established by the state agency to run research on the national lab portion of the International Space Station.