Suborbital researchers are finally ready for liftoff

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When Beth Moses was preparing for her flight on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo last February, she had a heavy workload. As the company’s chief astronaut instructor, she wanted to carry out a series of tests to understand what the suborbital spaceflight experience would be like for future customers.

She had one additional requirement as well. “My big job,” she told an audience of scientists at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Colorado in early March, “was not to kick you.”

By “you,” she meant not people but payloads. The vehicle carried several experiments provided through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which arranges flights on suborbital vehicles, high-altitude balloons and parabolic aircraft flights. On her flight, the payloads were on the left side of the cabin, operating autonomously, while she was on the right side, with instructions not to disturb those payloads. “I did not kick any payloads,” she confirmed.

Many of those at the conference hope to follow Moses’ lead. With SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard set to begin commercial service as soon as late this year, the focus has been on those vehicles carrying space tourists. But some believe that those vehicles are also ideal for research missions, including those that require scientists to fly with their payloads. NASA, at long last, seems to agree.

“A game-changer”

The idea of using commercial suborbital reusable launch vehicles for research is hardly new. As far back as the late 1990s, when the Ansari X Prize triggered a wave of development of such vehicles, scientists explored the benefits of using them for research rather than tourism. Those vehicles promised to fly more frequently and less expensively than conventional sounding rockets, and their reusability meant it would be easy to recover and refly experiments.

But the biggest advantage scientists saw in those vehicles is that they could carry people. With researchers on board, they could carry out research more efficiently and less expensively than if the payloads had to be automated, they argued. In some cases, such as biomedical research, people themselves could be the experiments, measuring the effects of brief exposure to microgravity.

“What do you see when you go into labs?” asked Alan Stern, associate vice president of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), during a talk that opened the conference. “You see people, doing research.”

The same should be true in space, he said, just as scientists do field work in remote and dangerous locales on Earth — illustrated, in one of his slides, by a geologist in a protective suit on the edge of a volcano. “Researchers do their research themselves, for the most part, in almost every discipline on the Earth,” he said. “Research in risky environments is not new.”

Suborbital vehicles, such as Blue Origin’s New Shepard, will need to conduct 14 accident-free flights in a row before NASA’s Flight Opportunities program will allow the researchers it funds to fly with their payloads. Credit: Blue Origin

While Stern may be best known as the principal investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, as well as a brief stint as the agency’s associate administrator for science, he is perhaps the biggest advocate for suborbital research on vehicles like New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo. He started the conference a decade ago to bring together scientists and vehicle developers, and even convinced SwRI to spend its own money buying flights on SpaceShipTwo. (As a sign of perhaps being too far ahead, SwRI also bought flights on Lynx, a suborbital spaceplane by now-defunct XCOR Aerospace; Stern said all they lost was a down payment.)

Stern is not alone in backing suborbital research with people. “Those obvious and substantial benefits of the researcher working with the experiment need to be extended to suborbital spaceflight,” said Steven Collicott, professor at Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and chair of an advocacy group for suborbital research that’s part of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

Automation of experiments, he said, can end up making them heavier, more expensive and less reliable, than those designed to be run by people. Researchers can also respond if something goes wrong with the experiment, or if there’s some unexpected phenomena that takes place. “Humans seem to be valuable to science,” he said.

“You can’t automate surprise discoveries,” said Dan Durda, a planetary scientist at SwRI. “It’s watching for the unexpected.”

Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, which have flown automated research payloads on their vehicles through the Flight Opportunities program, are interested in flying scientists as well.

“For the suborbital research community, human-tended flights will be a game-changer,” said George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic chief executive. He offered a long-term vision of weekly flights of SpaceShipTwo, with a “substantial fraction” devoted to human-tended research. “With so many experiments and researchers flying into space, we’ll be in a new renaissance of iterative space research.”

That view is shared by Steve Squyres, a former Cornell University planetary science professor and principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rovers mission who joined Blue Origin last year as its chief scientist. “My goal as chief scientist is to make Blue Origin the most science-friendly commercial launch service provider there is out there,” he said at the conference.

That includes human-tended suborbital research on New Shepard. “It is absolutely logical and absolutely possible for us to, down the road, enable researchers to fly with their payloads,” he said. “We’re going to be able to really offer some very, very substantial capabilities to fly with their payloads and enable groundbreaking science.”

Getting NASA on board

The biggest obstacle to flying scientists on suborbital vehicles — beyond the yearslong delays in completing those vehicles — has been securing support from NASA. While the Flight Opportunities program funds the flights of payloads on suborbital vehicles, the program has long had a prohibition on flying people with them.

That was supposed to change years ago. Speaking at the 2013 edition of the conference, Lori Garver, then the NASA deputy administrator, said NASA would change its policy and allow researchers funded by Flight Opportunities to fly their payloads on those vehicles. However, NASA was slow to enact that change, in part because of the delays by companies like Virgin Galactic.

That policy has finally changed. NASA’s latest Flight Opportunities solicitation, released in late February, included new language allowing researchers to fly with their payloads on suborbital vehicles.

“With the expansion of suborbitals and where they’re going, we are for the first time allowing for the potential for human spaceflight participants on those missions,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which oversees Flight Opportunities. “We’re not doing that for the sake of having human spaceflight, but if it helps the researcher, we’re accommodating it.”

At the conference, Stern and others applauded — literally — the change in the program. “It’s our job to respond to that call for proposals and flood them with good ideas to show them how much interest there is, how much impact this can have,” he said.

The change is not perfect, though. The call for proposals requires scientists to use vehicles that have had no more than one accident in their last 14 launches, something neither New Shepard nor SpaceShipTwo can currently demonstrate given the limited number of flights each has made.

Reuter, asked about that at the conference, said proposals won’t be rejected because of that, but scientists may have to wait until those vehicles build up a sufficient track record. “The idea is, let’s get going on the payloads that want to use that, and merge it into the program in the future,” he said.

Another obstacle is that NASA civil servants and contractors can’t fly with their payloads under the program. That’s because NASA is not certifying the safety of the vehicles, requiring those who fly to provide “informed consent” that they understand and accept the risks of such vehicles. While university and other independent researchers can sign such waivers, civil servants cannot.

But that may eventually change. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who made the trip to Colorado exclusively to speak at the conference, said the agency was starting the process of determining what it would take to certify commercial suborbital spacecraft to carry NASA personnel, including astronauts.

“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.

NASA is using the requirements of the commercial crew program as a starting point for what would be required for certifying suborbital vehicles. That list will be slimmed down, Bridenstine said, with the possibility of using flight experience the vehicles build up as a substitute for some parts of a formal certification process.

“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.”

There was, though, a perception at the conference that it’s only a matter of time before scientists start flying on commercial suborbital vehicles. When the conference started 10 years ago, that concept was still theoretical, with scientists discussing they kinds of research they might do on such vehicles. At this year’s conference, they instead talked about the automated payloads they’ve already flown and plans for human-tended ones.

The conference was also a means to discuss more practical issues involving developing and flying payloads, based on that experience. Moses, in talks at the conference, explained in great detail her planning for last year’s flight and the lessons learned for future researchers. That included one suggestion not directly related to operating experiments.

“One piece of advice: put a moment on your checklist to look out the window,” she said. “It’s totally worth it.”

This article originally appeared in the March 16, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.