SAN FRANCISCO — The three-year NASA Authorization Act signed into law Oct. 11 by U.S. President Barack Obama offers the most significant indication to date of congressional support for the space agency’s plan to devote millions of dollars annually to commercial suborbital transportation projects, industry officials said.

That legislation, which authorizes NASA to spend $15 million annually through 2013 on the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) program, would enable the space agency to fly research payloads on commercial suborbital vehicles, a move designed to spur development of new technology, improve microgravity research and support the fledgling industry. Before that money can be spent, however, Congress must vote to approve the funding in separate appropriations legislation, a move that is not expected until after the November midterm elections.

Commercial suborbital transportation backers said they are optimistic that congressional appropriators will vote to provide that money. A significant hurdle to the commercial suborbital research program was cleared in late September when the U.S. House of Representatives approved the U.S. Senate version of NASA authorization legislation, which set aside $15 million per year for CRuSR, industry officials said. The NASA authorization bill drafted by the House Committee on Science and Technology would have limited CRuSR funding to $1 million per year in 2011 and 2012. That bill also would have barred NASA from committing any funding until “all indemnification and liability issues associated” with government use of the vehicles had been addressed.

Although the new NASA funding is not likely to be appropriated until late in the year, the space agency allocated money from its 2010 budget for suborbital test flights under the CRuSR program. On Aug. 30, NASA awarded $475,000 to Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace for flight demonstrations. Those companies, in addition to several competitors, including Blue Origin of Kent, Wash., XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., and Virgin Galactic, which is based at Spaceport America in New Mexico, also are conducting independent testing of components and flight vehicles.

On Oct. 10, Virgin Galactic successfully completed its first piloted glide test of its suborbital craft, VSS Enterprise. The space plane glided to the Mojave Air and Space Port after being released from a height of 13,700 meters from its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo. Rocket-powered test flights of VSS Enterprise will begin next year, said Virgin spokeswoman Christine Choi.

Masten, meanwhile, is scheduled to conduct its first flight test of its Xaero vertical takeoff, vertical landing vehicle in November from the company’s test site at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Following that independently financed flight, the company is set to conduct two flights in December as part of NASA’s CRuSR program that will send Xaero to a height of 5 kilometers, said Michael Mealling, Masten’s vice president for business development.

Two more test flights are scheduled to follow in February, Mealling said. During the February tests, the Xaero vehicle is expected to travel to a height of approximately 29 kilometers and to demonstrate engine shutdown, an important element of the craft’s flight profile that will enable it to save fuel by gliding during the coast and re-entry phases of operation, Mealling said.

Armadillo Aerospace also plans to conduct test flights this fall. The company is scheduled to send its Super Mod vehicle on three unpiloted flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico, with the first flight, aiming for an altitude of 14 kilometers, sometime in November, said Neil Milburn, Armadillo’s vice president of program management. The next flight, which has a target height of 40 kilometers, will be scheduled once Armadillo officials obtain a license from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, Milburn added.

In 2011, NASA’s newly created Office of the Chief Technologist will bring CRuSR into its Flight Opportunities initiative, according to NASA spokesman David Steitz. “The program will help foster the development of the commercial reusable suborbital transportation industry, an important step in the longer-term path that envisions suborbital reusable launch vehicles evolving to provide the U.S. with much lower-cost, more frequent and more reliable access to orbital space,” Steitz wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. “This is a new way of doing business for NASA. Instead of waiting for the companies to make suborbital flights and then making awards, NASA is partnering with the companies during the vehicle development phase.”

At the same time, the suborbital flights will carry research payloads. “These technology flights are expected to reduce the risk for use of emerging technologies, procedures, and overall space operations in future missions by demonstrating application in a relevant environment,” Steitz wrote. “A measure of program success will be the extent to which it can infuse new technologies into NASA missions, while encouraging the development of commercial space services by enlarging the customer base for this emerging industry.”

During the initial test flights, the suborbital vehicles will carry NASA payloads designed to monitor the flight environment in addition to the FAA’s Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast payload, which broadcasts position and velocity information to air traffic controllers and other aircraft, Steitz wrote.

Later flights are scheduled to carry educational experiments, technology demonstrations and research payloads. Suborbital transportation executives said payload prices will vary based on many factors, such as mass, altitude requirements and integration costs. Initially, Masten plans to charge $75,000 to $90,000 to carry a payload that does not require access to a window or ejection from the vehicle, Mealling said. Those prices are likely to decrease as flights continue, he said. Experimental payloads on Armadillo flights could cost as much as $250,000, or considerably less if they are flown as a partial payload, Milburn said.

For NASA, the ultimate goal of the CRuSR program is to provide researchers with opportunities to validate components of developmental systems in a variety of areas, including propellant management, thermal management, autonomous operation, communication and navigation, in-situ resource utilization and space manufacturing, Steitz wrote. The CRuSR program also is designed to provide flight opportunities for peer-reviewed science experiments and educational payloads, he added.

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...