NASA asks industry to give it greater access to microgravity

New Shepard on the launch pad the morning of Mission 8, April 29, 2018.
Enlarge / / New Shepard on the launch pad the morning of Mission 8, April 29, 2018.

Blue origin

This week, NASA formally requested the US space industry. USA Give her the details on her plans for short flights. In essence, the space agency said it wants to buy trips for its body from astronauts and scientists for brief jumps into space, but needs more information.

The agency was deliberately vague in its request for “suborbital crew transportation services.” In a discussion with journalists, the new program manager, Scott Colloredo, said: “We really want to hear what the industry has to say to us.” He indicated that the request was wide open, with NASA seeking input from established companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, to companies like Space Perspective that want to take people a few dozen kilometers above Earth’s surface.

However, in an interview with Ars, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that the program primarily seeks to increase the time NASA spends on microgravity. “What we are trying to do is provide access to a resource that has historically been very limited,” he said.

NASA has drop towers where experiments can access a couple of seconds of microgravity. During a Zero-G flight, humans and scientific research experience weightlessness in 20-second increments. These are safe and have lower costs. At the other end of the spectrum, through Crew Dragon, NASA astronauts can experience months of microgravity at a cost of more than $ 50 million per seat and increased exposure to risk.

Find a sweet spot

Bridenstine said NASA would like to find an intermediate location where there is 5-10 minutes of uninterrupted microgravity. With this amount of time, astronauts could receive training, scientists could tend to experiment, and engineers could qualify flight hardware.

The time of the request is presented as Blue Origin, with its New Shepard system, and Virgin Galactic, with its VSS Unit spacecraft appears to be within a year or less of commercial operations beginning. Although companies have different systems, New Shepard offers a traditional launch, while VSS Unit it is a rocket powered space plane; both are designed to provide several minutes of weightlessness.

NASA has a number in mind, in budget terms, that wants to pay for these services. But Bridenstine said the agency is asking the industry for comments first to get an idea of ​​what private providers expect to charge. To the public, Virgin Galactic has sold individual tickets for $ 250,000. Blue Origin has not set a public price, although it is likely to be higher than this per seat.

Perhaps the biggest question about the program is the risk that NASA is willing to accept by putting its people in these space vehicles. For the space shuttle program, NASA fully supervised the development of the vehicle. Although the commercial crew program was a public-private partnership, NASA still had significant insight into all facets of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and Boeing’s Starliner because it paid most of the development costs.

Balance of costs and risks

Now that NASA is trying to really just be a customer, how will the agency balance that risk? Bridenstine said he hopes to measure safety, in part, from the flight experience. “It is something we will have to work for as an agency, “he said.” By the time NASA flies in these suborbital commercial vehicles, they will have flown numerous times. They will not be untested vehicles. NASA has a long history of using the flight experience as an alternative to the qualification and certification of each subcomponent. “

Regardless, NASA requests detailed safety information about the vehicles on their application. In particular, it searches for data on “fracture control and fault tolerance”, indicating a desire to have a fundamental understanding of the structure and margin of these space flight systems.

According to its overall record, the space shuttle had a probability of crew loss of approximately 1 in 70. Although the commercial crew program is just beginning, NASA required that these vehicles be designed with a probability of crew loss of 1 in 270. When asked which standard NASA would keep suborbital vehicles at, Bridenstine said NASA has not set a strict value.

However, he said, the probability would be “significantly” less than that of the shuttle and the commercial crew. “WWe are not going to make it more dangerous than orbital flight, “he said of suborbital flight.

Managing risks without substantially increasing costs would appear to be a difficult balancing act for NASA when it comes to New Shepard and VSS. Unit. However, the fact that two privately funded suborbital launch systems are approaching maturity seems to validate NASA’s approach of trying to become one of many spaceflight clients, rather than being the only one client of an expensive launch system.