WASHINGTON – NASA is taking the first steps in a process that could lead astronauts and other agency personnel to fly in suborbital commercial vehicles by establishing a program office and seeking industry information.
NASA announced on June 23 that it created an office with the commercial crew program, called the Suborbital Crew, or SubC, which will develop a process for NASA personnel to fly in vehicles such as New Shepard from Blue Origin and SpaceShipTwo from Virgin Galactic.
That effort will focus on developing what NASA calls a “system rating” of commercial suborbital vehicles to assess their safety. Once such vehicles compete for that rating, NASA will consider purchasing seats on flights for research and training.
“We have seen how the industry can develop innovative crew transport systems that meet NASA safety requirements and standards,” Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations and former manager of the NASA, said in a statement. agency commercial crew program. “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.”
To support that effort, NASA released a Request for Information (RFI) seeking information from the “suborbital space flight community” about the system’s qualification process. NASA also requests information on the cost of such flights, flight rates and other programmatic details.
RFI requests specific safety information on suborbital vehicles. That includes issues such as accident survival and mitigation, system reliability, and how the company “establishes and maintains the reliability of systems critical to the suborbital passage of humans into space.”
NASA states in the RFI that “it does not intend to duplicate the actions of the Federal Aviation Administration for licensing purposes,” but it does request information on passenger safety, such as “allowing passengers to maintain safety. while providing opportunities for scheduled activities, experiments and test programs. ” The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation is currently restricted from regulating the safety of space flight participants in commercial vehicles, a restriction that currently runs until 2023.
In the document, NASA describes three kinds of activities that would require commercial suborbital flights. One is astronaut training, which includes ascent, microgravity, and reentry conditions. A second is the testing and qualification of space flight hardware by astronauts or other NASA personnel. A third is human-tended microgravity research.
RFI and the establishment of the SubC office are the first public steps the agency has taken since NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced his interest in flight personnel in such vehicles earlier this year. In a speech on March 2 at the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, Bridenstine announced that the agency would seek some form of suborbital vehicle certification to allow NASA employees, such as astronauts, to fly over them.
“There is an interest in NASA, especially on the part of its administrator, to not only make human-made payloads, but what we would call crew-laid payloads. In other words, NASA’s own astronauts would fly with equipment and fly with payloads, “he said in the speech.
Doing this, Bridenstine said, would likely require using a subset of the requirements developed for the commercial crew program, then applying them through a combination of technical analysis of those vehicles and their flight experience. “Instead of certifying and qualifying each subcompunity and each component,” she said, “we can take the flight experience and flight history and use that as part of what we would see as a qualification process.”
The commercial space flight industry welcomed the latest announcement. “At a time when an increasing number of commercial space companies are providing cost-effective and frequent access to microgravity environments in suborbital, orbital and deep space, it is important that NASA fully utilize these innovative capabilities,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industrial group whose members include Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
Neither the RFI nor the NASA statement gives a timeline for developing the system’s qualification program or purchasing seats, and the agency did not discuss a budget for such flights. Bridenstine said in March that it could take up to a year to develop a certification plan for commercial suborbital vehicles.
However, there may not be a rush, as both New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo are still in development, with slow progress in recent memory. SpaceShipTwo has not conducted a powered test flight since February 2019, and its most recent test, a glide flight, was on May 1 from Spaceport America in New Mexico. In a May 5 earnings call, company executives said their goal for the year was to complete its flight test program.
The new Blue Origin Shepard last flew in December 2019, although a flight was reported to have been planned for April, but postponed by the coronavirus pandemic. All of the vehicle’s test flights to date have been without people on board, and company officials earlier this year said they anticipated several unmanned test flights before flying.
Neither company is selling tickets for their suborbital vehicles, although Virgin Galactic began accepting $ 1,000 deposits earlier this year from people who want the first opportunity to buy when the company resumes selling tickets.