SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is requesting funding in the 2012 budget to offer a $5 million prize to encourage development projects aimed at providing low-cost space transportation.

“I’m a big proponent of the value of prizes to stimulate innovation,” George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said Feb. 28 during a speech at the Next-Generation Suborbital Research Conference at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. “We plan to work with both NASA and the Department of Defense to discuss how best to implement this program.” Nield offered no further details on the prize but told conference participants to “stay tuned.”

FAA officials have mentioned the idea of this type of space prize in the past, according to space industry officials who said it is likely to be offered to the first company or organization that can launch a small payload weighing 1 to 5 kilograms into low Earth orbit. The technology might include development of an upper stage that could be launched from one or more of the reusable suborbital vehicles being developed by U.S. companies, said James Muncy, a longtime commercial space advocate and president of PoliSpace, an independent consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.

The FAA announcement drew praise from suborbital industry executives. William Pomerantz, vice president for special projects at Virgin Galactic, said company officials were excited to hear that the FAA prize might become a reality. “We at Virgin Galactic know that low-cost access to space is incredibly important, both for government and private customers,” Pomerantz said in a March 3 e-mail. “We also know firsthand that prizes can have an enormous and highly leveraged impact.”

New Mexico-based Virgin Galactic is conducting flight tests of a suborbital vehicle based on the design of SpaceShipOne, the experimental plane designed by Burt Rutan that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

Nicole Jordan, the X Prize Foundation’s team liaison for space prizes, also was enthusiastic. “Having the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation administer a prize for low-cost access to space is a great idea,” she said. “At the end of the day, it is the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation that regulates the licenses and permits required for launches, so it makes sense for them to be part of this initiative.”

Last year NASA announced plans to award $2 million to the first company or organization to place a small satellite into Earth orbit, twice in one week. Space agency officials are seeking an organization to administer that competition. “We have been coordinating with FAA on our plans,” said NASA spokesman David Steitz. “We look forward to coordinating with FAA on their initiative, should they receive an appropriation.”

FAA budget documents submitted to Congress in February includes $5 million “to establish a program for incentivizing advancements in space transportation by non-governmental organizations.” The Low Cost Access to Space incentive “would provide a $5 million award designed to jump-start the creation of an entirely new market segment, with immediate benefits to private industry, NASA, the Department of Defense, and academia,” according to the FAA documents. To define the competition’s scope and criteria, FAA will consult with groups inside and outside the federal government, the documents add.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...