NASA Considering New Commercial Parabolic Aircraft Flight Deals

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WASHINGTON — NASA is seeking input from industry on plans to resume purchases of microgravity aircraft flights, possibly on a “purely commercial” basis, as two companies make plans to start or restart such services in 2015.

NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center issued a request for information (RFI) Nov. 26 for commercial microgravity flight services. The agency is seeking information from companies about their capabilities to host experiments on aircraft that can provide brief periods of variable gravity.

Aircraft typically provide microgravity by flying parabolic trajectories, which can be tuned to allow for zero gravity or reduced gravity levels like those found on the surface of the Moon or Mars. Similarly, aircraft can also provide increased gravity levels though such trajectories, up to about twice Earth’s gravity.

While NASA has contracted for microgravity flight services in the past, the agency is seeking a somewhat different approach in this RFI. In those earlier commercial flights, NASA required insight into the company’s flight operations in order to review and approve any deviations from Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

NASA is seeking a more hands-off approach in the RFI. “NASA is assessing the feasibility of obtaining microgravity flight services on a purely commercial basis,” the agency states in the RFI. Companies providing flights under that approach would have full responsibility for airworthiness, flight safety and mission assurance, with NASA oversight limited to the payloads flying on those planes.

NASA currently does microgravity flights using its own airplane, a modified C-9 cargo plane, the military version of the civilian DC-9 jetliner. However, NASA awarded a contract to Zero Gravity Corp. of Arlington, Virginia, in 2008 to provide microgravity services using that company’s Boeing 727 aircraft.

NASA's DC-9 parabolic flight airplane
NASA’s DC-9 parabolic flight airplane

That contract expired June 30, NASA spokesman David Steitz said, with the last flights under the contract performed in April. NASA paid Zero Gravity Corp. $10.6 million over the life of the contract, and also spent $2.38 million on fuel and $1.29 million for other reimbursable expenses, such as salaries of civil servant and contractor personnel involved with the flights.

Zero Gravity has not flown any parabolic aircraft flights, for NASA or for commercial customers, since the end of its NASA contract. The firm has been in a legal dispute with Amerijet, the company that managed aircraft operations for and leased the aircraft’s three jet engines to Zero Gravity, since April.

Zero Gravity is now working with another company, Everts Air Cargo of Fairbanks, Alaska, to manage flight operations, company president Terese Brewster said in a Dec. 11 interview. The company is in the process of obtaining its air carrier certification from the FAA, known as Part 121, and plans to resume commercial flights in February.

Brewster said the company is responding to the NASA RFI and believes that, with its pending FAA Part 121 certification, it can win back its NASA business. “We are well placed to take over the work we had previously,” she said.

Another company, Swiss Space Systems (S3), also plans to perform commercial microgravity flights for tourists. In May, the Payerne, Switzerland-based company announced it would begin such flights in January 2015 in Japan, with flights taking place elsewhere in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and North and South America through the rest of the year.

On Nov. 25, S3 released a revised schedule that calls for flights starting in the second half of 2015 in Switzerland, Canada, and the United States, before going to Asia and other locations in 2016. Those flights will be performed using an Airbus jetliner that the company later plans to use as a launch platform for a suborbital spaceplane.

In a Dec. 3 interview, S3 spokesman Grégoire Loretan said the revised schedule is linked to new European regulations for “special flights,” such as parabolic aircraft flights. He said there were uncertainties about how the new regulations applied to those flights. “This is clearer now and we will start with flights in Switzerland in the second half of 2015,” he said.

Loretan said S3 was interested in the NASA RFI. “S3 plans to indeed respond to this NASA request for information in coordination with an integration partner in the U.S.,” he said. “We definitely have interest for doing research flights for space agencies, as well as research institutes and companies.”

NASA held an industry day for the RFI Dec. 9 in Palmdale, California, and responses are due to the agency by Jan. 19. NASA is expected to release a request for proposals in the spring.