NanoRacks And Blue Origin Team To Fly Suborbital Research Payloads

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — NanoRacks, the Houston-based company that provides commercial payload accommodations on the International Space Station, announced July 16 it will provide similar services on suborbital flights by Blue Origin starting as soon as next year.

NanoRacks said it is teaming with Blue Origin to provide standardized payload accommodations for experiments flying on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle. The company will provide services including payload design and development, safety approvals, and integration.

Jeff Manber, managing director of NanoRacks, said in an interview during the NewSpace 2015 conference here that the agreement for suborbital payload services is a “logical” step for the company by providing a capability less advanced than the ISS. “We can offer our clients and newcomers to the industry something less of a Mount Everest to climb,” he said.

NanoRacks plans to offer two standardized payload lockers for New Shepard flights. One will be able to accommodate payloads weighing up to 11.3 kilograms with a volume of 49 liters, while the other will have twice the mass and volume. The company didn’t disclosing pricing for the payload lockers, but Manber said it would be “competitive” with what NanoRacks offers for space station flights.

Manber said NanoRacks would look to its current space station customers as the first potential suborbital users. “Our first step is to look at our existing customer base,” he said. “There’s been a lot of payloads that have gone to the ISS that might be better served by going suborbital first.”

Flying payloads on suborbital vehicles, he said, offered researchers an opportunity to quickly fly experiments and make changes when compared to space station experiments. The safety approval process for payloads flying on New Shepard will also be much simpler than those going to the ISS.

Manber said NanoRacks had been focused until now on ISS flights rather than suborbital ones. “We never allowed ourselves to consider that there was a suborbital platform available in the short term, given the nature of Blue [Origin] and the way it keeps things quiet,” he said.

Blue Origin, based in the Seattle suburb of Kent, Washington, has developed a reputation for secrecy as it develops New Shepard. That vehicle performed its first high-altitude test flight April 29 from the company’s test site in West Texas, flying to an altitude of more than 93.5 kilometers. The company did not announce the test flight in advance, instead issuing a press release about it late the same day.

That test flight was only a partial success for Blue Origin: while the crew capsule part of the vehicle parachuted to a safe landing, the vehicle’s propulsion module, designed to land vertically under rocket power, suffered a problem with its hydraulic system. At the time, the company said it had additional propulsion modules under development to allow testing to resume “soon.”

Erika Wagner, business development manager for Blue Origin, said here those flight tests would resume later this year. “We’ll be flying again before the end of the year without customers on board,” she said. “We’ll be doing commercial payload flights next year.”

Wagner said Blue Origin decided to work with NanoRacks given its experience with space station payloads. “It was very natural for us to come to NanoRacks and Jeff Manber’s team,” she said. “They’re the leaders at this right now.”