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NASA astronauts may train on private suborbital spaceships

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spaceliner captured this view of Earth during the vehicle's first trip to space, on Dec. 13, 2018.
Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spaceliner captured this view of Earth during the vehicle's first trip to space, on Dec. 13, 2018.
(Image: © Virgin Galactic)

NASA astronauts may start hitching commercial rides to suborbital space in the near future. 

According to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, agency astronauts may use private suborbital flights for training and research experiments once these commercial trips have been proven safe. Such jaunts could help pave the way for the next crewed mission to the surface of the moon, which NASA aims to do in 2024.

Related: What's the difference between orbital and suborbital spaceflight?

Brief suborbital flights would allow astronauts to gain experience in, and familiarity with, the space environment without being subjected to the hazards of long-duration missions, Bridenstine said. 

"This is a big shift for NASA," he said on March 2 at the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Broomfield, Colorado. "But it's an important shift."

This shift could aid NASA's Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration, Bridenstine emphasized. In addition to the 2024 landing goal, Artemis aims to establish a long-term sustainable human presence on and around the moon by the late 2020s. Such work, in turn, will help pave the way for crewed Mars missions, which the agency wants to achieve in the 2030s.

"You are the commercial partners that will enable us to go to the moon sustainably," he told the crowd of scientists and space corporation members.

No waiver required

Suborbital flights reach space or brush its edges. As these flights rise above the Karman line, the point above sea level that marks entry into space, the high velocity and reduced gravity can provide space-like environments for scientific research. (Though not everyone agrees on where space begins, the most commonly mentioned boundary is 62 miles, or 100 kilometers, up.)

Already, a handful of companies are sending experiments toward or beyond this boundary using balloons as well as rockets. For example, Virgin Galactic has already flown two piloted test flights to suborbital space, and Blue Origin has launched a number of uncrewed demonstration missions with its New Shepard suborbital system. 

Both of these companies have flown research experiments on their suborbital test missions, and Virgin has already sold tickets to passengers who want to travel into space.

Suborbital flights provide a way to test new technologies in space over and over again before putting travelers at risk. "That's a capability we as a nation have not had until recently," Bridenstine said.

Private contractors already carry equipment to the International Space Station. But Bridenstine sees private flight as a doorway to more than just package delivery. "NASA astronauts would fly with equipment and payloads," he said.

In exchange, NASA would expect a high level of safety. "We're not going to have astronauts sign a waiver," Bridenstine said, a step likely to be required for private passengers.

Using a private spacecraft will in some ways require less oversight from the space agency. Rather than certifying and qualifying each individual component, a process that takes years, NASA would instead certify the flights themselves.

Or rather, let the flights certify themselves. Bridenstine said he anticipates that repeated successful flights by a private company would go a long way toward proving their safety.

Still, there would be qualifications. In order to qualify to carry crew to the International Space Station, Bridenstine said, commercial spaceflight companies must meet about 30 requirements from NASA. Suborbital flights would require similar qualification, but it wouldn't be as difficult to obtain.

"I think if we did it right, we could take those 30 requirements [and] we could cut them down to 20," Bridenstine said.

Suborbital flight also opens the door for non-NASA travelers to space.

"We’re rapidly approaching the day when a lot of people are going to be astronauts," Bridenstine said. "That’s good for our nation and good for the world."

Related: NASA's Artemis program (reference)

To the moon

On Earth, weathering and plate tectonics have changed the planet over billions of years, wiping out much of the evidence of the planet in its youth. But the early days of the solar system are still visible on the lunar surface, whose surface remains relatively unchanged since its formation. Some scientists worry that human boots on the lunar regolith could erase much of that evidence.

But Bridestone doesn't agree. Instead, he thinks science on the moon will be enhanced by human exploration.

"We can get to every part of the moon," he said. "The amount of science we're going to get is amazing."

Bridenstine pointed to the Dark Ages Polarimetry Pathfinder (DAPPER), a proposed radio mission to the far side of the moon that could investigate the early universe soon after the Big Bang. Current estimates put DAPPER's price tag around $500 million, Bridenstine said. But if humans were on the moon, DAPPER and other missions could use infrastructure for power and communications, reducing the cost to $90 million.

"That means more astrophysics than ever before," Bridenstine said.

The tension between science and exploration is a constant battle, he said. But it shouldn't be. "It's not that we're competing against science," he said. "We're enabling science."

Sending humans to the moon will allow a more in-depth exploration than could be possible from orbiters and rovers, Bridenstine stressed.

"It's not what we're giving up to get the moon," he said. "It's what we're gaining."

And returning to the moon is important, not only for science but also for exploration.

"I’m the first NASA administrator in history alive when we have not had people living and working on another world," the 44-year-old Bridenstine said. But when the Apollo missions changed history, they did so only for a specific class of people: white men. Bridenstine sees the next trip to the moon as a far more inclusive journey.

"This time, we go to the moon with all Americans," he said. "We have to make this our moment in history."

Bridenstine and other NASA officials have repeatedly said that at least one of the two astronauts who lands on the moon in 2024 will be a woman.

No longer a 'zero-sum game'

Artemis isn't the first post-Apollo push to return to the moon. Bridenstine said one reason these other efforts have failed is that the NASA budget tends to be a "zero-sum game, where the budget is flat."

One previous attempt cannibalized money from the International Space Station, raising protests from states intimately involved like Texas, California and Florida. Another battle to send humans to Mars culled money from NASA's science budget, leading to more infighting among space-supporting politicians.

The 2021 federal budget request proposed a $25.2 billion NASA budget, an increase of $6 billion over the agency's average take over the last three years. Roughly half of the increase goes into Deep Space Exploration Systems, including human landing systems and Gateway, a planned NASA waystation for humans and robots en route to the lunar surface.

In previous years, Bridenstine said, the White House has been hammered in the press for cutting the space budget. That's because in previous Januarys, Congress has provided an appropriation larger than the request for the budget, which is released in February, making the budget request seem like a cut even though the proposed amount grows each year.

"Now we have a $25.2 billion budget [for space]. I dare Congress to beat it," he said with a grin.

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