NASA takes initial steps to fly personnel on commercial suborbital vehicles

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WASHINGTON — NASA is taking the first steps in a process that could lead to astronauts and other agency personnel flying on commercial suborbital vehicles by establishing a program office and seeking input from industry.

NASA announced June 23 it has created an office with the commercial crew program, called Suborbital Crew or SubC, that will develop a process for NASA personnel to fly on vehicles such as Blue Origin’s New Shepard and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

That effort will focus on developing what NASA calls a “system qualification” of commercial suborbital vehicles to assess their safety. Once such vehicles compete that qualification, NASA will consider buying seats on flights for research and training.

“We’ve seen how industry can develop innovative crew transportation systems that meet NASA’s safety requirements and standards,” Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations and former manager of the agency’s commercial crew program, said in a statement. “Now we’ll be looking at a new way of enabling NASA personnel to fly on commercial suborbital space systems by considering factors such as flight experience and flight history.”

To support that effort, NASA released a request for information (RFI) seeking input from the “suborbital spaceflight community” on the system qualification process. NASA is also asking for information on the cost of such flights, flight rates, and other programmatic details.

The RFI asks for specific safety information on suborbital vehicles. That includes topics such as accident survivability and mitigation, system reliability, and how the company “establishes and maintains reliability of critical systems for suborbital passage of humans to space.”

NASA states in the RFI that it “does not intend to duplicate actions by the Federal Aviation Administration for purposes of licensing,” but it does ask for information about passenger safety, such as “what enables passengers to maintain safety while providing opportunities to perform scheduled experiments and test programs.” The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation is currently restricted from regulating safety of spaceflight participants on commercial vehicles, a restriction that currently extends to 2023.

In the document, NASA outlines three classes of activities that would require commercial suborbital flights. One is training of astronauts, including experiencing ascent, microgravity and reentry conditions. A second is testing and qualification of spaceflight hardware by astronauts or other NASA personnel. A third is human-tended microgravity research.

The RFI and the establishment of the SubC office are the first public steps the agency has taken since NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced his interest in flying personnel on such vehicles earlier this year. In a March 2 speech at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, Bridenstine announced the agency would pursue some kind of certification of suborbital vehicles to allow NASA employees, like astronauts, to fly on them.

“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,” he said in the speech.

Doing so, Bridenstine said then, would likely require using a subset of the requirements developed for the commercial crew program, then applying them through a mix of technical analysis of such vehicles and their flight experience. “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.”

The commercial spaceflight industry welcomed the latest announcement. “At a time when a growing number of commercial space companies are providing cost-effective and frequent access to microgravity environments in suborbital, orbital, and deep space, it is important for NASA to fully utilize these innovative capabilities,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group whose members include Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

Neither the RFI nor the NASA statement gives a timeline for developing the system qualification program or purchasing seats, and the agency did not discuss a budget for such flights. Bridenstine said in March that it could take as long as a year to develop a certification plan for commercial suborbital vehicles.

There may not be a rush, though, as both New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo are still in development, with only slow progress of late. SpaceShipTwo has not made a powered test flight since February 2019, and its most recent test, a glide flight, was May 1 from Spaceport America in New Mexico. In a May 5 earnings call, company executives said their goal for the year was to complete its flight test program.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard last flew in December 2019, although a flight was reportedly planned for April but postponed by the coronavirus pandemic. All of the vehicle’s test flights to date have been without people on board, and company officials said earlier this year they anticipated several more uncrewed test flights before flying people.

Neither company is currently selling tickets for their suborbital vehicles, although Virgin Galactic did start accepting $1,000 deposits earlier this year from people who want to have the first opportunity to buy when the company resumes ticket sales.