NASA develops plans to fly astronauts on suborbital rockets – Spaceflight Now

File photo of a New Shepard launch. Credit: Blue Origin

NASA says it is interested in flying astronauts and scientists in suborbital commercial vehicles, such as those being tested by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, to provide additional training and research opportunities that augment missions to the International Space Station in orbit.

The space agency announced this week the establishment of a Suborbital Crew, or SubC, office within NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which has overseen the development of new orbital-class space capsules by SpaceX and Boeing. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial spacecraft to bring astronauts into orbit on May 30.

NASA said Tuesday that it is seeking input from the commercial industry as the agency develops a plan to buy seats for astronauts and researchers in suborbital vehicles with private funds.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are testing vehicles that can transport tourists and space researchers above the discernible atmosphere, at altitudes between 50 and 68 miles (approximately 80-110 kilometers), providing several minutes of microgravity for people to float off their Seats, take in sight, and perform experiments. The duration of a suborbital flight on a small-scale rocket does not offer the long-term exposure to microgravity and the space environment provided by the space station, but the experience lasts longer than parabolic flights in a zero-gravity training plane.

“POT is developing the process to fly astronauts on commercial suborbital spacecraft, “NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted.” Whether suborbital, orbital or deep space, NASA will utilize our nation’s innovative commercial capabilities. “

NASA officials said they expect commercial suborbital space flight capabilities to be more affordable and routine than missions to the International Space Station. Suborbital flights could help NASA test and qualify space flight hardware, support human-attended microgravity research, and provide additional training opportunities for astronauts and other NASA personnel, the agency said in a statement.

“The agency has developed a comprehensive and intensive training program for astronauts and astronaut candidates, and suborbital crew space transportation services could provide even more training opportunities for NASA astronauts, engineers, scientists, operators, and trainers. “NASA said.

The information request released Tuesday by the industry seeks ideas on how NASA should assess the safety and other technical factors of suborbital spacecraft, and how NASA should purchase suborbital vehicle sides for astronauts and agency employees.

Scott Colloredo, manager of the new suborbital office within NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said Tuesday that progress by companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic has shown that the industry is “very close to being ready” for commercial flights. of passengers on the edge of space.

This diagram illustrates the flight profile of a typical New Shepard launch and landing. Credit: Blue Origin

“Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, we are in the same industry and we have been interacting with them for a long time … we have watched it, and I would say that these are the main ones that have prompted us to say that we could be close to a viable capacity here” Colloredo said Tuesday in a conference call with reports. “Beyond that, we’re not really sure. We would accept any offer, but those are the two that I would say are the ones that handle the most (NASA interest), and it’s mainly the fact that they are actually flying.

“These are real suppliers that are maturing, and we see them as increasingly viable,” said Colloredo. “I would say that is the main reason why we believe that now is the time to start considering this as something that we can take advantage of.”

The new Shepard suborbital system developed by Blue Origin, founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos of, includes a single-stage rocket powered by a hydrogen-powered BE-3 engine and a crew capsule. Both parts of the vehicle are reusable, with the rocket returning to the ground for a propulsive vertical landing, and the crew capsule returning to Earth under a parachute.

Launching from the Blue Origin test site in West Texas, the New Shepard can carry up to six passengers beyond the internationally recognized limit of space before its crew capsule returns to the ground about 10 minutes after takeoff.

Virgin Galactic, a trading company established as part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, uses an aerial launch rocket aircraft called SpaceShipTwo to transport up to six passengers to the edge of space. Unlike Blue Origin’s New Shepard, which is fully autonomous, the SpaceShipTwo vehicle will fly with two pilots who will manually control the rocket plane on each mission.

After falling from an airplane mothership onto the Virgin Galactic base in New Mexico, SpaceShipTwo ignites a rocket engine to accelerate into space. After a few minutes if microgravity, the pilots drive the rocket plane back to a runway landing.

Virgin Galactic has flown test pilots on suborbital space missions, but commercial service has not started. The company’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses accompanied test pilots on a SpaceShipTwo flight at an altitude of 55.9 miles (89.9 kilometers) last year to assess the vehicle’s passenger cabin.

With 12 New Shepard flights on the books, Blue Origin has yet to transport any employee or passenger into space, and has not announced ticket prices. Virgin Galactic says it charges $ 250,000 for a trip on SpaceShipTwo.

SpaceShipTwo fires its rocket engine during a 2019 test flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic / / Trumbull Studios

NASA officials say they expect suborbital trips to space to be safer than an orbital mission, but Colloredo said the agency is seeking information from companies such as Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and others before evaluating its risks.

NASA has required the Crew Dragon and Starliner orbital spacecraft developed by SpaceX and Boeing to have a probability of “crew loss” of no more than 1 in 270 on each mission. The risk metric assesses the probability that a mission could result in the death of a crew member.

While NASA was directly part of the development of the Crew Dragon and Starliner, the agency was not heavily involved in the design and testing of the Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin suborbital rockets.

“We have seen how the industry can develop innovative crew transport systems that meet NASA’s safety requirements and standards,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for human operations and exploration at NASA headquarters. “We will now look for a new way to allow NASA personnel to fly in commercial suborbital space systems by considering factors such as flight experience and flight history.”

“Suborbital human space flight has the potential to provide NASA with a great way to meet the agency’s needs and continue our efforts to enable a robust economy in space,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial development for space flight at NASA headquarters. “It is notable that NASA funds were not used for the development of suborbital vehicles, but we can participate in the market as buyers. The United States aerospace industry is again proving that it is technically and financially capable of developing safe, reliable, and cost-effective space systems. “

NASA has not dispatched employees as part of a human suborbital space flight program since the 1960s, when Mercury capsules and X-15 rocket planes brought test pilots to the edge of space.

NASA has conducted experiments on test flights from Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, and the agency recently announced plans to allow non-NASA researchers to accompany their experimental loads on suborbital flights.

Beth Moses, the primary astronaut instructor for Virgin Galactic, flew on a suborbital test flight of the SpaceShipTwo vehicle in 2019, becoming the first woman to receive commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Colloredo told reporters Tuesday that NASA is just beginning the process to determine what services it could receive from suborbital space flight providers.

“We are really looking for an industry to help drive this, to come in and tell us what’s available,” he said.

“We hope … the capabilities are more or less there,” Colloredo said. “I guess we have some unique capabilities that we may need, like any single mission requirement for any program. But overall, we expect to go directly to buying business services rather than build capacity. “

Colloredo said NASA is focused on accessing a microgravity environment, which is provided by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin suborbital vehicles. But he said NASA is “open” to listening to other companies, such as Space Perspective, which announced earlier this month plans to use a high-performance balloon to lift passengers into the upper atmosphere, where they would spend up to two hours in a pressurized capsule at an altitude of 100,000 feet (30 kilometers).

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.