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Revitalizing Nasa’s Suborbital Program: Advancing Science, Driving Innovation, and Developing a Workforce 7 Potential Opportunities for Commercial Suborbital Capabilities 7.1 INTRODUCTION In recent years, several companies have emerged seeking to develop low-cost suborbital launch capabilities, primarily to serve the prospective space tourist market, but also to provide access for researchers and engineers. The main question to be addressed is what role commercial suborbital vehicles can play, if any, in enabling NASA’s future missions, advancing technology, conducting cutting-edge science, and training the next-generation workforce. The committee invited representatives from the companies themselves, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and the Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses them, to provide information. The committee also invited researchers interested in these capabilities to present their views, and it communicated with the NASA staff who deal with the commercial suborbital industry. 7.2 STATUS There has been continuing interest in commercial suborbital platforms since the announcement of the Ansari X-Prize. Several commercial suborbital spacecraft with a range of capabilities are currently under development (see Figure 7.1). The Commercial Spaceflight Federation recently established the Suborbital Applications Research Group (SARG) to raise awareness of the research and education potential of the suborbital reusable launch vehicles under development. In addition, the National Aerospace Training and Research Center (NASTAR), working with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), implemented a suborbital space scientist training course in anticipation of human-tended experiments on commercial suborbital vehicles. There are several organizations currently developing commercial suborbital spacecraft with a range of capabilities, including Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR Aerospace. Although their ultimate success is uncertain, it is encouraging to see that these companies have begun to provide access to scientific investigators even during their developmental stages. 7.3 POTENTIAL ADVANTAGES OFFERED BY COMMERCIAL SUBORBITAL PLATFORMS The various commercial vehicles are intended to provide 3 to 5 minutes of high-quality microgravity, reaching altitudes of 60 to 160 km comparable to the smaller sounding rockets and significantly greater than traditional zero-g aircraft. Some of the projected benefits of commercial suborbital platforms include lower cost (current
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Revitalizing Nasa’s Suborbital Program: Advancing Science, Driving Innovation, and Developing a Workforce FIGURE 7.1 Montage of commercial suborbital spacecraft test, demonstration, and prototype vehicles. Clockwise from upper left: Masten Space Systems’s XA-0.1 E, Xombie (courtesy of Masten Space Systems); Virgin Galactic WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft prototype VMS Eve (courtesy of Bill Deaver, Mojave Desert News); Blue Origin’s Goddard vehicle (courtesy of Blue Origin LLC); XCOR Aerospace’s Rocket Racer (courtesy of XCOR Aerospace and Rocket Racing League, photo by Mike Massee); and Armadillo Aerospace’s Scorpius from the 2008 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge (courtesy of Armadillo Aerospace). estimates are $200,000 per seat on Virgin Galactic); increased flight access for design innovation and experimental manipulation due to high projected flight rates; and flexibility in launch sites. They would also allow for human-tended experiments, much like the traditional zero-g aircraft, with rapid access to these payloads before, during, and after launch. One of the primary selling points would be the potential for less bureaucracy than is typically experienced with government space access. Because these vehicles are being developed primarily for manned flight, the environments are expected to be much more benign than those for sounding rockets. Peak ascent loads are projected to be approximately 4 to 5 g’s, while reentry loads are expected to range between 5 and 6 g’s.1 These low accelerations should simplify the 1 M. Sarigul-Klijn and N. Sarigul-Klijn, Flight Mechanics of Manned Sub-Orbital Reusable Launch Vehicles with Recommendations for Launch and Recovery, Report No. AIAA 2003-0909, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, January 2003 (revised April 2003); E.B. Wagner, J.B. Charles, and C.M. Cuttino, Opportunities for research in space life sciences aboard commercial suborbital flights, Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine 80(11):984-986, 2009.
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Revitalizing Nasa’s Suborbital Program: Advancing Science, Driving Innovation, and Developing a Workforce TABLE 7.1 Examples of Research Areas that Could Make Use of Commercial Suborbital Platforms (not intended to be exhaustive) Discipline Research Life sciences Physiological response to microgravity Cell-cell interactions Gene expression Fertilization and early development Materials science Production of novel compounds Materials processing Combustion Physics Fluid dynamics Auroral studies Spectral line synthesis Earth science Atmospheric chemistry Climate change Satellite development and validation Land use change Engineering Advancing equipment TRLs Release of deployable payloads Satellite development and validation design and flight qualification of the experimental hardware. The equipment racks could be mounted at the hard points intended for seats, while the windows may allow for optical viewing experiments. Access to commercial suborbital spaceflight has the potential to open up a new realm in research and development (providing additional ways of advancing technology readiness level [TRL]) opportunities for NASA (see Table 7.1). 7.4 TRAINING AND EDUCATION OF THE NEXT GENERATION Through a user-focused program, researchers, engineers, technologists, and educators would be able to conduct hands-on suborbital research. Low-cost, frequent flights could expand opportunities for hands-on learning, participatory research, and eventually personal experience in spaceflight that are critical to developing technical and scientific competence.2 If the potential is demonstrated, one can envision that students would be able to take a range of payloads from concept through operations in the course of an academic program, thereby providing additional training options for the next generation of scientists, engineers, and space explorers. Opportunities abound for educators and the general public to participate in inspirational projects. However, the committee noted that while opportunities do exist for entry-level education and public outreach activities, outsourcing to commercial suborbital companies does little in the way of training the next generation of systems engineers and contributing to viable workforce development. A hallmark of the planned commercial suborbital program is the simple, easy access to a microgravity environment requiring only minimal consideration of the larger challenges of spaceflight—the hard part has already been done: the environment is so benign that many of the challenges of spaceflight do not apply (e.g., autonomous execution, thermal stress, radiation, high-g launch environments, high reliability, and so on), and the process for gaining access to space could become so straightforward that the applicability of the educational experience to the NASA way of doing business will be diffused. 2 Yvonne Cagle, “Low-cost Frequent Access to Space—Gamechanger for Education and Workforce Development,” white paper, 2009.
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Revitalizing Nasa’s Suborbital Program: Advancing Science, Driving Innovation, and Developing a Workforce 7.5 PLANNED IMPROVEMENTS AND EXECUTION OF A SUBORBITAL PROGRAM Commercial suborbital programs are different from other elements of the suborbital program in that they are rapidly maturing technologies. As such the main needs for improvement, beyond overall design maturation, lie in how NASA would utilize such a new capability that historically has not been integrated into NASA’s operations. It is envisioned that the Commercial Suborbital Program would operate in a similar fashion to the Airborne Science Program’s catalog aircraft. This would allow for operations to be streamlined with limited bureaucracy. Ideally, investigators would buy a seat or access to the flight, configure the experiment or distribute sensors to the astronauts, and then recover the payload(s). Because these spacecraft are being designed with the goal of qualifying for certification to carry passengers, they are expected to be safer than traditional rockets, which reduces the operational risks associated with phased beta testing and milestone demonstration, and could provide a cost-competitive return on research investment. Increased flight access might also help mitigate the trend of diminishing flight rates. Finding: Commercial suborbital vehicles, once successfully developed and proven, have the potential to provide increased, low-cost opportunities for research, technology development, and educational experiences, complementing NASA’s existing suborbital capabilities. Finding: Given that the commercial suborbital capability represents an order-of-magnitude increase in providing a microgravity environment for investigation over traditional parabolic and drop tower technologies, the committee believes that commercial suborbital research platforms should be seriously considered by the current Committee on the Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space, which deals with the microgravity research program. Commercial Element of Recommendation 5: NASA should continue to monitor commercial suborbital space developments. Given that the developers stated to the committee that they do not need NASA funding to meet their business objectives, this entrepreneurial approach offers the potential for a range of opportunities for low-cost quick access to space that may benefit NASA as well as other federal agencies.