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.
STATEMENT OF TASK
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 systems has been significantly advanced by an ability to conduct specific and accurate studies with high spatial and temporal resolution (often referred to as process-scale investigations). Arctic sea ice loss, changes in Earth’s albedo, trace gas emissions from various ocean and land ecosystems, the interplay between changes in atmospheric composition (including stratospheric ozone loss) and atmospheric radiative forcing (i.e., climate change), and changes in severe storms and in atmospheric dynamics are but a few areas of investigation significantly impacted by suborbital capabilities. The suborbital program elements provide essential technical innovation and risk mitigations that benefit spaceflight missions through development and demonstration of technology and instruments that later fly on NASA spacecraft. The suborbital elements provide effective, hands-on, engineering and management experience that transfers readily to NASA spaceflight projects. These frequent opportunities, which provide for cradle-to-grave hands-on mission experiences and training for students, researchers, principal investigators, project managers, and engineers, are vital to future space endeavors.
The committee decided not to include documentation of the evolution of the funding of the suborbital program because changes over time in NASA’s complex accounting procedures make it extremely difficult to obtain meaningful trends. Nonetheless, as currently implemented by NASA, suborbital elements and facilities are insufficiently funded and hence not fully or effectively used. There is inadequate support for payload construction and for the development of key technologies, such as detectors, lightweight optics, and so on. The suborbital elements are dependent on reimbursable funding; inadequate research and analysis funding has led to such a decrease in the number of flights that the program is jeopardized.
The following provides the committee’s integrated recommendations that cut across all suborbital elements. Chapter 8 provides a detailed listing of the overarching findings and recommendations, with additional details provided in Chapters 2 through 7.
Recommendation 1: NASA should undertake the restoration of the suborbital program as a foundation for meeting its mission responsibilities, workforce requirements, instrumentation development needs, and anticipated capability requirements. To do so, NASA should reorder its priorities to increase funding for suborbital programs.
Recommendation 2: NASA should assign a program lead to the staff of the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate to coordinate the suborbital program. This lead would be responsible for the development of short- and long-term strategic plans for maintaining, renewing, and extending suborbital facilities and capabilities. Further, the lead would monitor progress toward strategic objectives and advocate for enhanced suborbital activities, workforce development, and integration of suborbital activities within NASA.
Recommendation 3: To increase the number of space scientists, engineers, and system engineers with hands-on training, NASA should use the suborbital program elements as an integral part of on-the-job training and career development for engineers, experimental scientists, systems engineers, and project managers.
Recommendation 4: NASA should make essential investments in stabilizing and advancing the capabilities in each of the suborbital program elements, including the development of ultralong-duration super-pressure balloons with the capability to carry 2 to 3 tons of payload to 130,000 feet, the execution of a thorough conceptual study of a short-duration orbital capability for sounding rockets, and modernization of the core suborbital airborne fleet. (The committee notes that it was not asked to prioritize the different elements of the suborbital program, but such a prioritization should be an integral part of implementing this recommendation.)
Recommendation 5: NASA should continue to monitor commercial suborbital space developments. Given that the commercial 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.