Suborbital Companies Told To Brace for Reduced NASA Funding

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GREENBELT, Md.— A NASA program designed to foster development of commercially operated suborbital rockets is likely to receive substantially less funding next year than the $17 million that was requested, an agency official told a gathering of industry representatives Sept. 7.

“What we are hearing is, we expect to go into a [continuing resolution] for [2012],” said L.K. Kubendran, program executive for the Flight Opportunities Program at NASA headquarters in Washington. “We don’t expect to see a budget” before Sept. 30, when the federal government’s fiscal year concludes.

A continuing resolution, or CR, is a temporary spending measure that Congress can adopt in lieu of a formal spending bill. A CR either preserves funding levels from the previous year or reduces them.

Kubendran spoke at the Emerging Commercial Suborbital Vehicles Workshop, held here Sept. 7 at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The workshop served as a mixer for aspiring commercial suborbital spaceflight providers and potential customers within NASA.

NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist, which controls funds for the Flight Opportunities program, “could get, like, half of what we asked for” in 2012, Kubendran said. “That means that each program, and we are one of the 10 programs within [the Office of the Chief Technologist], definitely will be affected.”

The Office of the Chief Technologist parcels out funds provided under NASA’s Space Technology account. NASA requested $1.02 billion for that account next year. The House provides only $375 million. The Senate has not produced a NASA spending bill for 2012 yet.

Of the $17 million NASA requested for the Flight Opportunities Program, $15 million is for the commercial reusable suborbital companies, and $2 million is for parabolic flights aboard aircraft. Such flights provide brief periods of microgravity during the descents.

Despite the dour forecast for the Flight Opportunities Program, Kubendran still believes NASA “can make good progress.”

As an example, he cited the selection in August of seven commercial suborbital flight providers for inclusion in NASA’s Flight Opportunities catalog. Each of those vendors received a two-year indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract. The total potential value of the contracts is $10 million combined. The catalog is designed to create a stable of vehicles that NASA can draw on in the coming years to fly experiments to suborbital space.

Awardees were Armadillo Aerospace, Heath, Texas; Near Space Corp., Tillamook, Ore.; Masten Space Systems, Mojave, Calif.; Up Aerospace Inc., Highlands Ranch, Colo.; Virgin Galactic, Las Cruces, N.M.; Whittinghill Aerospace, Camarillo, Calif.; and XCOR Aerospace, Mojave, Calif. Near Space makes stratospheric balloons; the other six awardees are developing suborbital rockets, some of which are reusable.

These companies have yet to demonstrate reusable vehicles capable of reaching altitudes of 100 kilometers, the internationally recognized boundary of space. UP Aerospace has reached suborbital space with sounding rockets In the meantime, flights to lower altitudes are planned.

“We are contracted to fly some Flight Opportunities payloads here in the near future,” said Colin Ake, director of business development for Masten Space Systems. However, he said, “I don’t have a date that I’m going to put on that right now.”

An upcoming flight of Masten’s reusable Xaero vertical takeoff and landing vehicle will take 10 kilograms of payload as high as 6 kilometers. The point of that flight, Ake said, is to demonstrate the vehicle’s descent system, which relies on extendable flaps rather than parachutes to create drag during the unpowered portion of the vehicle’s descent. Masten had planned three tethered test flights of the Xaero vehicle on Sept. 7, Ake said. Two of these took place that day, but the third was postponed “to troubleshoot a technical squawk,” Ake said in a Sept. 8 email.

One NASA program director at Goddard expressed enthusiasm for — if not immediate interest in doing business with — the commercial suborbital rocket companies, which plan to charge about $100,000 to $200,000 to bring a person, or the equivalent weight in payload, to the edge of space.

“I personally didn’t see a whole lot of things this morning that I said, ‘Aha! We’ll start using that,’” George Komar, associate director for Goddard’s Earth science technology office, said during his closing remarks after the day’s final panel. However, he added, “I think the thought process you all are involved in is going to be important.”

In particular, Komar expressed interest in using reusable suborbital vehicles as a first stage of sorts for expendable rockets that would launch at high altitudes to carry small payloads into orbit. Komar told the assembled companies that if they can find a way to launch small orbital payloads at an affordable price the engineering community likely would respond by designing instruments sized to take advantage of that capability.