Suborbital Editorial Lands Short

Last week’s editorial titled “A Little Caution Doesn’t Hurt” [Nov. 24, page 18] missed the mark on several levels.

The emerging commercial suborbital industry neither needs nor seeks a “lifeline” of any kind. Virgin Galactic has revealed that last month was their best month ever for suborbital ticket sales. Further, any initial funding for this new program will go to scientists, not vehicle developers, so they can begin unlocking the scientific potential of these new capabilities and actually building real experimental hardware.

The editorial also asserts that only one company “appears within striking distance of fielding an operational vehicle.” This is false – in fact several companies have active flight test programs of demonstrator vehicles. For example, right now video game pioneer John Carmack’s Armadillo Aerospace has a vehicle that is capable of suborbital missions to the near-vacuum of the upper stratosphere. The vehicle, named “Pixel,” has already completed dozens of low-altitude test flights and Armadillo has higher performance vehicles already built.

NASA should be an early adopter of commercially developed capabilities in order to encourage their development in ways that serve NASA’s best interests. At the same time, signs are NASA will be supportive are helpful – though not essential – in raising the private capital needed to develop these systems. Of course we must ensure the scientific research is real, robust and within reach. That is why the Personal Spaceflight Federation is co-organizing a workshop, with NASA Ames and in conjunction with the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, to bring suborbital vehicle operators together with interested scientists. By waiting on the sidelines, NASA not only loses the opportunity to have its specific needs built into the vehicles from the beginning, but also sends the signal that they are not likely to be good partners or customers in the future.

NASA should be at the cutting edge of all things aeronautics and space. Now more than ever NASA must show it will pursue a great opportunity when it sees it and be willing to take some risks along the way. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin understands this and has worked hard to be a game-changer for commercial space. That is why we have high hopes he will follow through with his commitment to put a specific line item in the budget for this new program, an act that – as he put it – would be a symbolic as well as real gesture.



President, Personal Spaceflight Federation