NASA Technology Program Seeks To Help Suborbital Vehicle Developers

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WASHINGTON — A NASA program originally established to provide suborbital flights for experiments is now expanding its scope to include development of key technologies for the vehicles themselves.

NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate issued an announcement of collaborative opportunity May 21 covering public-private partnerships for the development of what it terms “emerging space technology systems capabilities.” The goal of the program is to help private companies develop key technologies that could be used for suborbital and orbital launch vehicles and spacecraft.

“The entrepreneurial U.S. commercial space industry is rapidly evolving, including the development of new suborbital and orbital launch vehicles,” the announcement states. “However, it is also clear that this emerging industry faces significant challenges.”

The new opportunity grew out of a desire to accelerate progress on suborbital vehicles to support NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, which provides parabolic and suborbital flights for experiments. While that program started several years ago expecting suborbital vehicles to soon enter commercial service, NASA officials now said that given the delays many such vehicles have experienced, the agency wanted to find ways to help companies working on them.

“We could either sit back and wait for vehicles to come onboard when they’re ready, or we could see how we could help the industry,” Laguduva Kubendran, program executive for the Flight Opportunities Program at NASA Headquarters, said during a presentation at the Space Access ’15 conference in Phoenix in May.

The announcement includes five categories of technologies, based on responses to a request for information NASA issued last year: suborbital reusable and small-satellite launch vehicle systems, wireless power transfer, thermal protection systems, green propellant thrusters, and high-performance liquid propellant rocket engines that are small and affordable.

NASA plans to award up to five Space Act Agreements to U.S.-based companies in the suborbital and small launch vehicle category, and up to two in each of the other four categories. The agreements would not provide the companies with any direct funding, but NASA would instead agree to provide $1 million to $2 million in agency resources, including access to facilities and personnel, per award. Proposals are due July 30 with selections expected in September.

The use of such nonreimbursable agreements was a compromise, Kubendran said. “Initially we were thinking about doing funded Space Act Agreements,” he said, but the agency was concerned about opposition to such agreements, which have been used by NASA’s commercial cargo and crew programs, by some in Congress. “It wasn’t worth fighting that battle.”

In addition to the technology development solicitation, the Flight Opportunities Program is also looking to on-ramp new vehicles onto an existing contract to provide flight services. NASA issued a request for proposals June 4 for flight services by suborbital launch vehicles or high-altitude balloons, with proposals due July 13.

The program currently has four companies under indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contracts awarded last September. Three companies — Masten Space Systems, UP Aerospace and Virgin Galactic — provide suborbital flights to varying altitudes on rocket-powered vehicles, although Virgin Galactic has yet to fly any payloads. A fourth company, World View, offers high-altitude balloon flights.

Flight Opportunities had its origins in a NASA effort established in 2009 called the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) program. At the time, NASA sought to take advantage of several different suborbital vehicles in various stages of development by purchasing flight services from them. NASA merged CRuSR with a separate parabolic flight services program in 2010, creating the Flight Opportunities program.

Kubendran said the goal of the new technology development opportunity is to help complete vehicles that can eventually fly payloads for the Flight Opportunities Program. “A successful partnership will, we hope, lead to additional capabilities that can eventually come onboard as part of our IDIQ contracts,” he said.