NASA is getting pressure from backers of the nascent suborbital tourism industry to commit to flying scientific experiments aboard vehicles being developed to carry paying passengers to the edge of space. Industry advocates warn that the
space agency risks missing early flight opportunities by not funding experiments now so as to have them ready to fly when vehicles such as Virgin Galactic’s planned SpaceShipTwo begin commercial operations within the next few years.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has pledged to do everything he can to help this industry. But the agency in practice is proceeding cautiously: Rather than committing to develop specific experiments, it is setting aside up to $400,000 to study whether piloted suborbital vehicles can in fact provide a useful platform for research in any of NASA’s four main space science disciplines: astrophysics, heliophysics, Earth science and planetary science. Proposals for the studies are due Dec. 5.

This path was chosen by Ed Weiler, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, an admitted skeptic of the concept who recently noted that the agency received only a handful of responses to a solicitation issued this past spring seeking information from scientists interested in utilizing commercial suborbital vehicles.

As suborbital advocates and even some of Mr. Weiler’s subordinates have pointed out, the wait-and-see approach contrasts with what NASA officials were saying early this year, when the Science Mission Directorate was led by Alan Stern. At that time, officials spoke of immediately instituting a full-fledged program to take advantage of commercial suborbital flight opportunities as soon as they became available. Those who are growing impatient with what they see as Mr. Weiler’s foot-dragging also note that the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agreed in September to explore using SpaceShipTwo to host environmental sensors.

That the industry is eager to stoke demand for its services from all possible sectors, including the
government, is understandable. But so too is NASA’s caution: It was not that long ago that the entrepreneurial reusable rocket industry, which sprouted in response to what was then seen as burgeoning demand for launches of communications satellites to low Earth orbit, turned to NASA for a lifeline when its business models collapsed. NASA obliged with millions of dollars in study contracts; the funding helped keep some companies afloat for a time but was not nearly enough to bring any of the planned rockets to the launching pad.

The suborbital companies should tread carefully here: If NASA gets the sense that they are becoming similarly desperate, the agency could sensibly conclude that any money spent studying their potential to support scientific research ultimately would go to waste. This situation is different from the one with Zero Gravity Corp., which offers paying customers brief periods of microgravity aboard a modified jetliner. Zero Gravity already was up and operating with its commercial service when it began seriously lobbying for a chance to win NASA business.

Patience, and a focus on the primary market, should be the order of the day for the suborbital companies, only one of which – Virgin Galactic – appears within striking distance of fielding an operational vehicle. NASA certainly should look closely at the potential of these services to support its research, and weigh their cost and utility against other options including unmanned sounding rockets, and high-altitude aircraft and balloons. That is, hopefully, what the planned feasibility studies are all about.

Should those studies indicate there is real promise to the concept, and the suborbital companies successfully inaugurate their services, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, as Mr. Weiler points out, has enough flexibility within its $5 billion annual budget to quickly take advantage. If NASA is not quite ready the day companies like Virgin Galactic begin operations, that’s no tragedy; suborbital research won’t end and the industry won’t go out of business.

NASA can best support entrepreneurial space companies by being a willing buyer of new or emerging services that are of clear value to the agency in executing its mission. Should the suborbital industry demonstrate that value, NASA would be foolish not to be a customer, and in the process give these companies a steady source of supplemental income. For now, NASA is being appropriately prudent, allocating enough money today to be in position to make smarter investments tomorrow.