Scientists Itching for Suborbital Space Research
XCOR Aerospace's Lynx spacecraft is shown launching into space with a science payload on its dorsal side in this artist's illustration.
Credit: XCOR Aerospace

When private companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace start regularly flying passengers to the edge of space, thrill seekers and space fanatics won't be the only ones standing in line.

The commercial spaceflight industry's potential to provide frequent and relatively inexpensive trips to the upper reaches of the atmosphere could revolutionize the science and research community. And even with the suborbital vehicles still in their testing phase, at least one institution is already onboard.

"We're a bit ahead of the curve," Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., told SPACE.com. "We've gone out — not even waited for taxpayer dollars. We're almost ready to fly. The vehicles aren't quite ready, but the experiments are pretty much built and ready to fly."

The Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a nonprofit research organization, has already purchased tickets for several of its scientists and experiments on future suborbital flights aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo and XCOR Aerospace's two-seat Lynx space plane. The SwRI has deals for six flights with XCOR and two with Virgin Galactic, with options for more. [Future of Space Tourism: Who's Offering What]

The potential benefits

Stern sees tremendous research opportunities from commercial spaceflight, with applications that range from atmospheric science, life science, astrophysics and planetary science to education and public outreach.

"The impact is going to be huge," Stern said. "It's almost like it's the late 1970s and you're imagining how modern computing will change the world."

Performing experiments on private suborbital and orbital flights could also bridge a crucial research gap between Earth and the International Space Station, the massive laboratory that orbits 220 miles (354 kilometers) above our planet. Stern likened the space station to baseball's major leagues, with commercial flights akin to the minor leagues.

"The space station is amazing, and it has tremendous capability, but it will always be limited to just the few people there, and it takes years to prepare things to go up," Stern said. "We have this very experimental, creative system that suborbital will foster, and we need them both. It's not that suborbital is better, it's different. Baseball could not survive without the minor leagues – it takes the minors to make the majors really shine."

Changing the way research is done

Dan Durda, a planetary scientist at SwRI, thinks commercial spaceflight opportunities could give researchers the opportunity to do more hands-on "field work," the way geologists, oceanographers and botanists are able to work directly in their environments of study.

"I think the life sciences community will see very early and prolific benefits from a large number of commercial passengers flying to space," Durda told SPACE.com. "They'll get the chance to gather a much larger body of medical data on a far greater variety of subjects than has been possible to date. For my own studies of the properties and behavior of regolith on the surfaces of very small asteroids, these types of suborbital flights will help in providing very direct analogs of those environments, and I can't wait to be able to do my own interactive experiments on this."

Moreover, once the commercial spaceflight industry picks up steam, suborbital (and one day, orbital) flights are expected to occur much more frequently than other rocket launches. [10 Years of Space Tourism]

"The frequent access to space launches on a weekly or even daily basis will, I'm sure, benefit some investigations," Durda said. "If you weren't happy with the results of the experiment on Monday, turn around and fly it again on Wednesday. In the more conventional model, you might not get another chance for years — if ever."

This potential to repeat experiments or do follow-up studies could be one of the key advantages of private spaceflight.

"The ability to do iterative science is not usually easy to do in space," George Whitesides, president and chief executive of Virgin Galactic, told SPACE.com. "Our frequency of flight is expected to be vastly higher than sounding rockets or balloons. We think it's going to be a significant area of the market."

What the future holds

Virgin Galactic has already seen interest grow as researchers and institutions become aware of suborbital spaceflight as a unique platform for experiments, Whitesides said. One of the company's preliminary market forecasts sees a third or more of Virgin Galactic's business coming from education and research, he said. [Vote Now! The Best Spaceships of All Time]

"That said, I think it's still early," Whitesides added. "I think this will grow over time, as researchers come back with real results and publish papers. It's going to be about what results they can get from their investment in a new research platform. If the results are good, as we certainly expect they will be, money will flow toward that area of productive science."

In a sense, Stern, Durda and other SwRI scientists are leading the charge. And they certainly hope others follow.

"We have eight flights in the works and the option to fly more flights," Stern said. "I basically have my own space program, and I want others to follow. I want them to be jealous, and I want them to catch up and pass me. And if they pass me, I'll cheer them on. This is what we want — this is what the future is supposed to be."

You can follow SPACE.com staff writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.