Scientists Eye Commercial Suborbital Flights for Experiments

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SAN FRANCISCO — A recent meeting of scientists and academics demonstrated strong interest in sending experiments into flight on commercial suborbital launch vehicles being designed to carry paying passengers into space. The Human-Tended Suborbital Science Workshop held here Dec. 15 brought together more than 130 people from NASA, universities and suborbital flight companies to discuss new ways to conduct a variety of science experiments in microgravity.

“It was really a fantastic turnout that surpassed even our expectations on interest in the scientific community for using these vehicles,” said John Gedmark, executive director of the Personal Spaceflight Federation, a Washington-based alliance of businesses working toward commercial human space travel. “When this industry was developing, everyone was concentrating on space tourism. We now realize there is a big market for science.”

Six companies presented plans for suborbital flights during the workshop: Armadillo Aerospace of Rockwall,; Blue Origin of Seattle; Masten Space Systems of Mojave,; TGV Rockets Inc. of Oklahoma; Virgin Galactic of Las Cruces, N.M.; and XCOR Aerospace of Mojave.

Those plans were greeted enthusiastically by scientists eager to test experiments in microgravity. While a limited number of microgravity experiments are conducted on the international space station, most such research is carried out on parabolic airplane flights or sounding rockets.

“Access to quality microgravity for longer than a few seconds is, in general, rare and costly,” said Steven Collicott, professor of aeronautic and astronautic engineering at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind. “The combination of microgravity time, cost, repeated flights and access time proposed by the commercial suborbital industry differs from what is presently available.”

It is difficult to determine what the exact cost will be to fly experiments on the new commercial spaceships. Workshop participants say they think the price will be somewhere in the range of $100,000 to $200,000 for an experiment that takes up the rough equivalent of one passenger seat.

“One reason we are really interested in these flights is because we want to know if this is a cost effective way to do research,” said John Karcz, lead scientist for the Suborbital Science Project Office at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

Karcz cautioned, however, that it may be difficult to compare the cost of conducting experiments on different vehicles because the operating environment on the proposed suborbital flights is quite different from that of sounding rockets and other suborbital aircraft.

Scientists will have to determine the mass, volume and power available for experiments carried by suborbital flights. At the same time, they will need to understand the vibration and thermal conditions inside these vehicles.

“We want very quiescent conditions, more than space tourists require,” Collicott said. “The good news is that if these vehicles can’t do exactly what we want, we can design our experiments to tolerate whatever vibrations are in the systems.”

During the workshop, suborbital vehicle developers also learned how their vehicles could be modified to accommodate scientific payloads. For example, developers may offer different window options to allow various frequencies of light to pass through. “As long as you plan ahead of time, it is fairly easy to build in those options,” Gedmark said.

One aspect of the suborbital flights that was greeted enthusiastically by scientists at the workshop was the promise that the new spaceships would offer researchers the chance to travel along with their experiments.

“Human-tended experiments can be far more productive than uncontrolled or automated experiments,” Collicott said. “A disciplined and well- prepared science team can wisely adapt the experiment to maximize the data gained during a few minutes of microgravity test time.”

While NASA has not made upfront investments in commercial suborbital flight companies or committed money to using the new platforms for scientific research, recent words and actions indicate the space agency’s growing interest in using the vehicles to carry out human-tended science experiments.

“There has been considerable discussion within NASA about how we might use these emerging capabilities, how we might adapt our existing unmanned suborbital program to enhance these experiments through human interactions, as well as how much funding we should plan to budget and when those funds will be needed once such suborbital capabilities are successfully demonstrated,” NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said in a Dec. 5 speech on commercial space. “We are not interested in doing ‘junk science’ or in subsidizing this development as we are doing with [Commercial Orbital Transportation Services], but we do plan to leverage this new capability, when it emerges, to improve the science to be conducted or to lower our costs. You should see more about this initiative in next year’s budget request.”

Late last year, NASA issued a request for information asking suborbital service providers to disclose relevant data on their vehicles such as flight profiles, interior conditions, time spent in microgravity and flight schedules. At the same time, the agency issued a request for information calling on scientists to propose concept studies for human-tended experiments that could be conducted in the suborbital vehicles. NASA intends to select several concepts for funded studies this year.