BROOMFIELD, COLO. — NASA officials said this week that, for the first time, they are open to funding flights of people, and not just experiments, on commercial human suborbital launch vehicles expected to enter service as early as next year.
Speaking via videoconference at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) here June 3, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver indicated that the agency’s Flight Opportunities Program, which funds the flights of experiments on suborbital vehicles as well as high-altitude balloons and aircraft that fly reduced-gravity parabolas, would be open to future proposals that included flying researchers as payload specialists on suborbital vehicles.
“We absolutely do not want to rule out paying for research that could be done by an individual spaceflight participant — a researcher or payload specialist — on these vehicles in the future,” Garver said. “That could open up a lot more opportunities.”
Previous solicitations in the Flight Opportunities Program allowed people to fly only on parabolic aircraft. “At this time NASA will not sponsor people to fly on commercial balloon or suborbital reusable launch vehicles,” stated the program’s most recent call for proposals, issued in October 2012.
Garver said the new willingness to fund flights of researchers on suborbital vehicles was intended to address a “misinterpretation” of the original intent of the program to support both researchers and suborbital vehicle developers. “Our thinking has evolved,” she said, adding that she had conferred with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden about this change before speaking at the conference.
Flight Opportunities Program officials said at NSRC that they have yet to formulate a policy about flying people on suborbital vehicles. “This is fairly new information, and we’re still trying to process how we’re going to do that,” said Laguduva “LK” Kubendran, the Flight Opportunities program executive at NASA headquarters in Washington. He said the program would provide some policy guidelines for human suborbital spaceflights in the near future.
Conference attendees welcomed Garver’s announcement. “It’s a huge breakthrough,” said Alan Stern, chairman of the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group, an advisory committee of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation that promotes the use of commercial suborbital vehicles for research. Flying people to carry out experiments can make those research payloads less expensive, he said. “When you get rid of the automation and put a person there, it’s much less expensive and usually more reliable.”
Two companies, Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace, have contracts in place with the Flight Opportunities Program to fly payloads on suborbital vehicles that are also capable of carrying people. Andrew Nelson, chief operating officer of XCOR, said at NSRC that the company is working to close out the design of its Lynx Mark 1 vehicle, including completing manufacturing of the wings and nose section of the suborbital spaceplane. Company officials said flight tests of the vehicle are slated to begin late this year.
Virgin Galactic performed the first powered flight test of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle April 29, with additional test flights planned for later this year. William Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Galactic, said at NSRC that the company expects to have SpaceShipTwo makes its first flight into space “right around the end of this year,” with commercial service to begin in 2014. The company already has one dedicated research flight arranged by the Flight Opportunities Program on its manifest for mid 2014.
A third company, Blue Origin, is also actively developing a crewed suborbital vehicle, New Shepard, but is not yet selling flights on it for research or tourism. “Our philosophy is to bring products to you as they’re ready,” said Erika Wagner, business development manager for Blue Origin, at NSRC. She declined to disclose when New Shepard would be available for suborbital research flights.