Private Suborbital Spaceships Could Aid NASA Science
WhiteKnightTwo mothership is the launch carrier for SpaceShipTwo spaceliner under development by Scaled Composites. NASA is studying use of suborbital systems for conducting science as well as astronaut training.
Credit: Virgin Galactic

ALAMOGORDO, NM — NASA is eyeing ways to use privately operated suborbital vehicles to help carry out its space agenda.

The U.S. agency appears keen on exploring what benefits can be gleaned from commercial piloted suborbital vehicles over traditional means of hurling payloads on suborbital trajectories to the edge of space. The capability, if realized, could offer NASA a new mode of scientific research: human-tended suborbital investigations for studies in which having a live person in-the-loop would increase the scientific return of flight experiments.

If it's a go from the space agency, a pilot research program of suborbital flight operations could be implemented in 2010-2011.

The idea was appraised during a 15th anniversary reunion of DC-X/XA experimental pioneers, who tested a vertical takeoff and landing rocket project run by the Pentagon, the Air Force and NASA at periods of time during 1991-1997. During the mid-August reunion here at the New Mexico Museum of Space History, meeting participants also dove into future space transportation needs.

Cutting your teeth

The cadre of private groups working on suborbital vehicles is both impressive and growing, such as: Scaled Composites and its WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo system, as well as the Lynx suborbital rocket plane by XCOR Aerospace.

Efforts are also underway at Masten Space Systems, Armadillo Aerospace, Rocketplane Global, and by that oh-so-secretive Blue Origin group that's bankrolled by Jeff Bezos of fame and fortune.

During last month's gathering, NASA chief Mike Griffin underscored the fact that private groups can now accomplish suborbital human space sprees on their own dime. Up to a few years ago, he added, that ability could only happen using government dollars.

When asked about how much NASA is doing to encourage commercial suborbital flight, Griffin said: "The brief answer is ? as much as I can." The space agency is in the process of consolidating money from its sounding rocket program, he added, as well as drawing dollars from NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

That cash amounts to no more than a few million bucks — a symbolic as well as real gesture, Griffin said. Those consolidated dollars will be placed into a funding line for the purchase of commercial human suborbital flights, he observed.

"Those [flights] can have many purposes," Griffin said. "We spend a good deal of money buying suborbital flights at NASA for purely scientific payloads all the time. Some of our best program managers come out of the suborbital program ? because that's where they cut their teeth on learning how to fly real hardware."

But there's a big difference in flying payloads on private suborbital craft. For one, the human principal investigator of the experiment could go along for the ride.

Suborbital training program

NASA has other interests in buying rides from suborbital firms.

"We could use commercial suborbital human transportation for early training and qualification of astronauts," Griffin explained. "If I could buy a seat to suborbital flight for a few hundred thousand dollars ? why wouldn't we have all of our new 'astros' make their first flight in such a manner?"

Still, even with that encouragement, Griffin launched his own advisory to private space groups.

"I also need the commercial companies to behave like commercial companies, not like government entities. They've got to figure out what their customers want and give it to them ? so we've got to get suppliers acting like suppliers. But that will happen," Griffin concluded.

A set of funded studies this fall will identify, as a first step, the utility of purchasing suborbital services, said Pete Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. "We've got to do the homework," with Ames leading the effort.

Worden said one idea has already bubbled to the top.

Up to now trying to get a handle on how well astronauts can read cockpit dials in NASA's Orion — the replacement for the space shuttle — is tacked together via simulations. Alternatively, human suborbital flights could provide all-in-one acceleration into weightlessness and then reentry forces. In other words ? the real deal.

"The question is can it simulate better, more effectively, or cheaper than other means that we use. That's kind of where we're going," Worden told

Portfolio of missions

There is also a bounty of other science missions waiting to be tapped with private suborbital vehicles, other meeting participants said.

"These new vehicles present us with some great opportunities, both in terms of their capabilities and in that they will allow us to conduct research in a new way, by booking commercial services to reach space," said John Karcz working on the use of piloted suborbital vehicles to carry out a portfolio of missions. He is an astrophysicist with the SETI Institute who is located at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

Karcz told that NASA's first major step has been the call — which is currently out ? for concept studies using the new breed of suborbital space ships to carry out research under the umbrella of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

Disciplines under that wing of NASA are: astrophysics, heliophysics, planetary science, and Earth science.

"I am eager to see the ideas for missions that people develop.There is bound to be some overlap with the research currently conducted on suborbital platforms, like sounding rockets. But, I am convinced that the unique capabilities expected from these vehicles — like frequent flights to space, rapid turn-around times, and the ability to carry the scientists themselves onboard — should open up completely new possibilities," Karcz added.

  • Video — SpaceShipTwo Revealed
  • Video — Flight of the Lynx: XCOR's Suborbital Rocketship
  • Future of Flight: Space Tourism, Investment and Technology