5.9 Revitalizing NASA’s Suborbital Program: Advancing Science, Driving Innovation, and Developing a Workforce

A Report of the SSB Ad Hoc Committee on NASA’s Suborbital Research Capabilities

Executive Summary

In the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 (Section 505), the Space Studies Board (SSB) was asked by NASA to conduct a review of the suborbital mission capabilities of NASA. The act expresses the sense of Congress that suborbital flight activities, including the use of sounding rockets, aircraft, and high-altitude balloons, and suborbital reusable launch vehicles, offer valuable opportunities to advance science, train the next generation of scientists and engineers, and provide opportunities for participants in the programs to acquire skills in systems engineering and systems integration that are critical to maintaining the nation’s leadership in space programs. Further, the act finds it in the national interest to expand the size of NASA’s suborbital research program and to consider it for increased funding.


The Space Studies Board established the ad hoc Committee on NASA’s Suborbital Research Capabilities to assess the current state and potential of NASA’s suborbital research programs and conduct a review of NASA’s capabilities in this area. The scope of the requested review included:

• Existing programs that make use of suborbital flights;

• The status, capability, and availability of suborbital platforms and the infrastructure and workforce necessary to support them;

• Existing or planned launch facilities for suborbital missions; and

• Opportunities for scientific research, training, and educational collaboration in the conduct of suborbital missions by NASA, especially as they relate to the findings and recommendations of the National Research Council’s decadal surveys and recent report Building a Better NASA Workforce: Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration (NRC, 2007).

The committee was asked to consider airborne platforms broadly and to include the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, although it is not part of the suborbital program per se.


Through review of reports and technical documents and the distillation of presentations to the committee by NASA staff, research scientists, educators, and outreach specialists, the committee found that suborbital program elements—airborne, balloon, and sounding rockets—play vital and necessary strategic roles in NASA’s research, innovation, education, employee development, and spaceflight mission success, thus providing the foundation for achievement of agency goals. The suborbital program elements enable important discovery science, rapid response to unexpected, episodic phenomena, and a range of specialized capabilities that enable a wide variety of cutting edge research in areas such as Earth observations, climate, astrophysics, and solar-terrestrial observations, as well as calibration and validation of satellite mission instruments and data. In Earth sciences, in particular, the suborbital program (especially through use of its airborne and balloon capabilities) has enabled studies of chemical and physical processes occurring in the atmosphere, oceans, and land (and at their interfaces) having important socioeconomic and political implications. Knowledge of greenhouse gas forcing and the associated feedbacks within the climate


NOTE: “Executive Summary” reprinted from Revitalizing NASA’s Suborbital Program: Advancing Science, Driving Innovation, and Developing a Workforce, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2010, pp. 1-3.

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