NASA watches astronauts and staff fly to the edge of space on commercial rockets

In a major policy change for NASA, the space agency is making it possible for its own personnel, including astronauts, to fly in commercial suborbital spacecraft. These rockets are designed to fly to the edge of space and back, giving passengers brief experiences of weightlessness. The agency hopes to expand flight options for its astronauts and researchers, while investing in the commercial space industry.

Today, NASA released a request for information on all the ways that astronauts and NASA employees could benefit from flying on these short trips to space. One possible advantage is to improve astronaut training by giving explorers additional experience of what it’s like to ascend into space in a rocket-powered vehicle and float in microgravity. That way they are better prepared to fly into orbit. NASA also believes that astronauts and agency researchers could fly and operate experiments designed for the space environment. These flyers could also help test hardware meant to be used in space, to see if it is held in microgravity.

The goal is for NASA to become a customer of the commercial space flight industry again, by purchasing locations on suborbital flights into space. It would work a bit like NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, where NASA buys seats on two privately-made spacecraft: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, both designed to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. . However, there is a big difference. NASA partially funded the development of the two commercial crew vehicles. With this new program, NASA did not finance the development of any suborbital spacecraft.

“It is notable that NASA funds were not used for the development of suborbital vehicles, but we can participate in the market as buyers,” said Phil McAlister, director of development for commercial space flight at NASA, in a statement. “The aerospace industry in the United States is again proving that it is technically and financially capable of developing safe, reliable, and cost-effective space systems.”

Right now, there are really only two transportation options for NASA to choose to fly astronauts to the edge of space and back. Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic developed a space plane called VSS Unity that can take passengers to the edge of space before returning to Earth. And Jeff Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, has a reusable rocket called the New Shepard that also launches into space and back, sending passengers inside a crew capsule that lands by parachute. So far, Virgin Galactic has sent five employees into space on its space plane during two test flights, while Blue Origin has only carried out unmanned launches of its rocket. Neither company has released any paying customers yet.

Still, NASA expects these vehicles to be online soon, so the agency is changing its policies on flying in these vehicles. “It is becoming an emerging capability,” said Scott Collardo, head of NASA’s new Suborbital Crew (SubC) office that will oversee this new initiative, during a press call with journalists. “Now we want to see and see what the industry has to offer to take advantage of it.”

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said the company is “excited” about NASA’s plans. “This comes immediately after our Space Law agreement with NASA this week on training private astronauts for ISS missions,” he said in a statement to The edge. “Public-private partnerships are key to opening the space for good, and we are inspired by the future of human space exploration.” Blue Origin also expressed similar praise. “We applaud the leadership of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to advance public-private partnerships in space,” Clay Mowry, vice president of global sales for Blue Origin, said in a statement to The edge. “We are eager to offer suborbital manned space transportation services to NASA with New Shepard.”

With the systems still in development, NASA wants to make sure that its employees will be safe if they fly in these vehicles. That is why the agency is assembling the Suborbital Crew (SubC) office, within the existing NASA Commercial Crew Program, which will review the safety of these vehicles. If Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin wants to fly any NASA employee, they must tell NASA how they are evaluating the safety of their systems, how passengers would survive any accident, safety standards, and much more. NASA also plans to work with the FAA, which regulates space launches, to present the specific requirements that companies must meet in order to bring in NASA personnel. NASA can also take into account a vehicle’s flight inheritance, so the more times a vehicle flies safely, the better its rating will be.

NASA is also eager to hear from the industry about how they plan to keep a vehicle safe. “We believe that the industry is likely to have an alternative approach to this, probably not exactly as NASA did in the past,” Collardo said.

Today’s news is part of NASA’s recent embrace of human suborbital space flight. In March, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine argued that NASA was investigating flying astronauts on suborbital rockets. And before that in January, NASA announced that it would allow researchers from outside the space agency to request opportunities to fly their experiments on these quick trips to space. Previously, researchers could request microgravity charges be shipped on Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic vehicles through NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, which would help fund and coordinate travel. But NASA did not allow the researchers to fly with their payloads, so they all had to be automated.

In March, NASA launched a call for research proposals, giving people the choice to automate their suborbital experiment or potentially go into space with their work. A draft application said that researchers could receive up to $ 450,000 or $ 650,000, depending on the types of experiments they proposed.

NASA has made efforts in the past to allow researchers to fly on suborbital rockets. Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator, spearheaded a campaign in 2013 to allow investigators to fly in these vehicles alongside their investigation. “It just seemed obvious to me that part of the appeal of doing it with a reusable vehicle like Virgin Galactic would be that you could take the investigator with her,” says Garver. The edge. “It took a long time to automate your experiment, if you’re not going to be there with him.”

He noted that the additional cost to fly a person to NASA is a fairly small amount. Virgin Galactic’s current ticket prices are set at $ 250,000, which can be expensive for an investigator, but a drop in the bucket for the space agency. However, Garver was rejected by the idea of ​​flying investigators when she first proposed it. “You know the government’s risk aversion,” she says. “There were questions about what NASA’s responsibility would be. It is one thing to lose your research on a suborbital flight, another to lose your investigator. “

The initiative did not advance at that time, but now the new administration is adopting it again, after years of defenders of the commercial space asking for a change. “I really think that when people look back a century, they are going to call this turning point this time,” says Alan Stern, associate vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division of the Southwest Research Institute. The edge, “Not only in commercial space, but also in the outbreak of human space flight, which goes beyond the scarce flight of full-time professionals. It will be much more like the aviation industry. “

Of course, there is still a big hurdle for all of this to happen: Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin must start flying clients. “What I’m most excited about is that these flights really happen,” says Garver.

Update June 23, 5:00 pm ET: This story was updated to include a statement from Blue Origin, as well as interviews by Scott Collardo and Alan Stern.