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NASA wants to send astronauts on private suborbital spaceflights

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 credit: Virgin Galactic)

NASA's chief says he wants to step up flight opportunities for astronauts.

In a tweet Friday (June 19), NASA (opens in new tab) Administrator Jim Bridenstine said his space agency plans to drop a request for information (RFI) next week to fly astronauts on commercial suborbital spacecraft. 

"Whether it's suborbital, orbital, or deep space, NASA will utilize our nation's innovative commercial capabilities," Bridenstine said in the tweet (opens in new tab). No flight dates have been announced yet.

Related: What's the difference between orbital and suborbital spaceflight? (opens in new tab)

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RFIs are competitive processes for NASA to make an informed choice between proposals from private companies based on qualifications it defines for participants. There are some likely leading contenders for the opportunity.

Blue Origin (opens in new tab) is one of them, and the company has already publicly expressed interest in taking part. "Fantastic news and we applaud your leadership @JimBridenstine for continuing to bolster public-private partnerships in space," Blue Origin tweeted (opens in new tab) Friday. "We're looking forward to the opportunity to expand New Shepard's human space flight offering to @NASA astronauts."

Blue Origin is developing a New Shepard (opens in new tab) spacecraft-rocket combo designed to send astronauts into suborbital space. New Shepard is already making uncrewed scientific commercial flights into space — most recently in December (opens in new tab), with NASA as one of the customers. In April 2020, a Blue Origin led-team was one of three entities selected to build human-rated moon landers for the Artemis program (opens in new tab).

Virgin Galactic (opens in new tab) is another likely company lining up for the opportunity, although the company has not made any public announcements yet. In December 2018 (opens in new tab) and February 2019 (opens in new tab), the VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo spacecraft made two successful test runs past an altitude of 50 miles (80 kilometers), which the Federal Aviation Administration defines as the boundary of space. (This is not quite as high as the internationally accepted Karman line (opens in new tab), with an altitude of 62 miles or 100 km).

Another possible applicant is Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser (opens in new tab), a reusable plane-like orbital spacecraft; Sierra Nevada also made no announcement on Twitter about Bridenstine's offer. Dream Chaser received early-stage commercial crew development money from NASA, but did not qualify for the final opportunity to fly astronauts. 

In August 2019, Sierra Nevada said it is still developing two variants of the vehicle (opens in new tab) — one for cargo, and one for astronauts — for future customers. The cargo variant will be used for NASA supply runs to the International Space Station starting around 2021.

Bridenstine's announcement comes three weeks after NASA and SpaceX successfully flew astronauts into space. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley piloted SpaceX's commercial crew vehicle, Crew Dragon, as part of the Demo-2 flight to the International Space Station (opens in new tab)

Boeing is developing a Starliner (opens in new tab) spacecraft expected to make similar flights in the near future. In 2014, Boeing and SpaceX received final-stage development contracts from NASA (opens in new tab) to make their commercial crew spacecraft a reality.

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Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc (opens in new tab). in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.