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NASA exploring ways to fly astronauts on commercial suborbital vehicles

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a suborbital research conference March 2 that NASA is beginning a process to certify commercial suborbital vehicles to carry NASA astronauts. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

BROOMFIELD, Colo. — With NASA now allowing researchers to fly with experiments on commercial suborbital spacecraft, the agency is beginning a certification process that would allow its astronauts to also fly on such vehicles.

NASA issued Feb. 28 a call for proposals for its Flight Opportunities program, seeking payloads that could be flown on suborbital vehicles. As with a draft version issued in January, the final solicitation will, for the first time, permit researchers to propose “human-tended” payloads on commercial suborbital vehicles, a capability long sought by many researchers interested in flying experiments, and themselves, on those vehicles.

“With the expansion of suborbitals and where they’re going, we are for the first time allowing for the potential for human spaceflight participants on those missions,” Jim Reuter, NASA associate administrator for space technology, said at a Feb. 28 meeting of the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. “We’re not doing that for the sake of having human spaceflight, but if it helps the researcher, we’re accommodating it.”

The solicitation states, however, that neither NASA employees nor those of agency contractors can be spaceflight participants on Flight Opportunities-funded missions. Others, such as those employed by other companies or universities, can fly so long as they are informed of the risks of flying on such vehicles and consent to accepting that risk.

NASA, though, is considering ways to allow agency employees, including astronauts, to fly on such vehicles. “There is an interest in NASA, especially from its administrator, to not just do human-tended payloads, but what we would call crew-tended payloads. In other words, NASA astronauts themselves would fly with equipment and fly with payloads,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine during a March 2 speech at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference here.

The challenge in doing so, he said, is NASA would have to certify those suborbital vehicles as safe to carry astronauts. “We’re not going to have our astronauts signs waivers of liability,” he said. “So we have to actually make sure these vehicles are safe.”

Any certification work would be done by NASA’s Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate, which includes human spaceflight, and not the Space Technology Mission Directorate, which runs the Flight Opportunities program. That effort would likely begin by taking requirements and standards from the commercial crew program and adapting them for suborbital vehicles.

There are about 30 commercial crew requirements, which Bridenstine said a subset of which could be used for commercial suborbital flights. “I think we could take those 30 requirements and cut them down to 20,” he said. “I think that’s the first step that we should go through.”

Bridenstine said that the level of technical analysis required for that certification could be offset by the amount of flight experience those vehicles build up on commercial flights. “Rather than certifying and qualifying every subcomponent and every component,” he said, “we can take flight experience and flight history and use that as part of what we would see as a qualifying process.”

In an interview after his speech, Bridenstine said it was too soon to estimate how long it would take to get a commercial suborbital vehicle approved for flying NASA astronauts. The first steps, he said, were to adapt the commercial crew requirements for suborbital vehicles, verify with industry that those requirements were feasible and then develop a certification plan. “That in itself could take a year,” he said.

He emphasized the desire to use flight experience as a way of replacing some of the technical reviews of those vehicles. “There’s a long history at NASA of using flight history and flight safety records as a substitute for certifying every subcomponent, every component, every system of every vehicle.”

Bridenstine said in his speech that suborbital vehicles could be used for, among other things, crew training for astronauts. “We can hire these crewed vehicles to fly NASA astronauts as part of their training or maybe to test equipment, do these kinds of activities that are important to the astronaut corps,” he said.

The idea of using commercial suborbital vehicles for astronaut training is not new. In 2008, NASA issued a request for information about using commercial suborbital vehicles for both research and astronaut training. “I very much hope that NASA researchers and astronauts will be proactive in taking first advantage of such capabilities as they are developed by the nation’s entrepreneurs,” Mike Griffin, NASA administrator at the time, said in a March 2008 speech.

That effort did not lead to a program for flying NASA astronauts, but did set the stage for using commercial suborbital vehicles for NASA research, which eventually became the Flight Opportunities program.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...