— NASA intends to spend up to $400,000 in 2009 studying whether piloted suborbital spacecraft under development by Virgin Galactic and others have the potential to be useful for scientific research. Whether the
space agency ultimately funds scientists to develop and fly actual experiments, however, remains to be seen.

The nascent commercial suborbital community – a tight-knit group of mostly U.S. companies vying to field piloted vehicles capable of carrying passengers and payloads to the edge of space for several minutes of weightlessness and stunning views – applauded NASA this summer when it announced its intention to fund up to eight one-year studies of the scientific potential of Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo and other commercial piloted suborbital vehicles.

But that enthusiasm has given way to doubts about NASA’s commitment to being among the first to take advantage of the scientific potential of human suborbital flight.

“Rightly or wrongly the perception is that NASA is dragging its feet on this program,” said John Gedmark, executive director of the Personal Spaceflight Federation, a Washington-based trade association that counts would-be suborbital operators among its members. “I think it’s in NASA’s best interest to be playing a lead role in this new industry by encouraging it however it can. NASA should be on the cutting edge of everything going on in aeronautics and space.”

When NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) first unveiled its human suborbital research plans early this year, officials spoke at the time about immediately instituting a bona fide flight program backed by a substantial budget.

But SMD was under different management then. Under the leadership of Ed Weiler, an old NASA hand recalled from Goddard Space Flight Center in March following the abrupt resignation of Alan Stern, SMD now wants to see if scientists truly are interested in putting payloads aboard human suborbital craft before committing the resources to develop experiments and book passage for them.

subordinates have described him as less than enthusiastic about the human-tended suborbital science program compared to Stern, who made the revitalization of NASA’s traditional sounding rocket-based suborbital program one of the focuses of his short tenure on the job.

Others said NASA’s wait-and-see approach contrasts sharply with the proactive posture adopted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which agreed in September to work with Virgin Galactic to find opportunities to fly climate sensors aboard SpaceShipTwo during its experimental flight-test phase.

readily acknowledges his skepticism, but said SMD under his direction remains “committed to giving this a chance.”

In a recent interview, Weiler said NASA got a poor response to an unfunded request for information (RFI) it put out in spring 2008 to gauge scientists’ interest in taking advantage of suborbital flight opportunities aboard the likes of SpaceShipTwo.

“There were five or six responses, which was incredibly tiny for an RFI,” Weiler said Nov. 4. “You could look at that and say that frankly, scientifically, they weren’t that excited.”

Rather than call it a day, Weiler said SMD decided to find out if putting some money on the table might achieve a better response. Each one of SMD’s four divisions – astrophysics, heliophysics, Earth science and planetary science – were asked to carve $100,000 each out of their 2009 budgets to pay for multiple year-long studies.

Study proposals are due Dec. 5 with awards expected sometime during the first quarter of 2009. The roughly two-month delay in NASA’s original timetable for receiving proposals and making awards – combined with rumors about behind-the-scenes budget maneuvers – have stoked concern Weiler is not serious about using the new generation of piloted, reusable suborbital vehicles.

, however, said he only is trying to be prudent by having the interested researchers show through peer review that human suborbital vehicles offer scientifically compelling flight opportunities before putting any significant amount of SMD money into developing experiments and booking flights.

“What we have is ’09 money in each of the division directors’ budgets reserved that can be used to fund the studies,” Weiler said. “For 2010, I don’t consider these things to be that expensive.”

So while SMD has not set aside money explicitly for building and flying payloads aboard one of the new vehicles in development, Weiler said he did not think NASA-funded researchers necessarily would be stranded on the ground if one or more suborbital operators starts flying before NASA has time to review the results of the upcoming year-long studies and formulate a budget response.

“We’d find a way,” he said. “I’ve got a $5-billion budget.”

wait-and-see approach rankles suborbital advocates who were encouraged by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin’s remarks in mid-August about his willingness to do “as much as I can” to encourage commercial suborbital flight.
went on to say NASA should be willing to buy some of the early flights. “Some of our best program managers come out of the suborbital program … because that’s where they cut their teeth on learning how to fly real hardware,”

, meanwhile, said that despite rumors to the contrary, SMD did not budget for a human suborbital science program beyond the studies and then reverse course.

“Let me clarify something that got reported in certain Internet blogs. There was never any money on the budget for [that]. I think the number was $5 million or something? That was never budgeted, that was never identified. Programs weren’t delayed or canceled to free it up,” Weiler said. “The accusation that we took that money and spent it on something else is interesting but totally untrue.”

Jim Muncy, an Alexandria, Va.-based consultant who specializes in commercial space, said Weiler’s comments “confirm[ed] rumors that they are not funding actual experiments for development to fly on these vehicles.”

That in turn, Muncy said, “means that when the vehicles are flying in less than two years there will not be actual experiments ready to use them.”

In a response to follow-up questions for Weiler, NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown wrote in a Nov. 7 e-mail that SMD has budgeted funding for developing suborbital flight experiments, albeit ones that are not specific to the new class of human suborbital craft in development.

“What we are doing now is determining whether there is any science driver for expanding our suborbital opportunities beyond conventional sounding rockets, conventional and long-duration balloons, and aircraft to include piloted suborbital rockets,” Brown wrote. “Since NASA has not been provided with an augmentation to fund any flight experiments that might fly on a new suborbital vehicle, any such experiments which are selected on the basis of their scientific merit would be funded by selecting fewer experiments with lower scientific merit that might have flown on other suborbital vehicles.”