By Leonard David, Special Correspondent,

posted: 10 September 2008 06:51 am ET

ALAMOGORDO, NM — NASA is eyeing ways to use privately operated suborbital vehicles to help carry out its space agenda.

The U.S. agency appears keen on exploring what benefits can be gleaned from commercial piloted suborbital vehicles over traditional means of hurling payloads on suborbital trajectories to the edge of space. The capability, if realized, could offer NASA a new mode of scientific research: human-tended suborbital investigations for studies in which having a live person in-the-loop would increase the scientific return of flight experiments.

If it’s a go from the space agency, a pilot research program of suborbital flight operations could be implemented in 2010-2011.

The idea was appraised during a 15th anniversary reunion of DC-X/XA experimental pioneers, who tested a vertical takeoff and landing rocket project run by the Pentagon, the Air Force and NASA at periods of time during 1991-1997. During the mid-August reunion here at the New Mexico Museum of Space History, meeting participants also dove into future space transportation needs.

Cutting your teeth

The cadre of private groups working on suborbital vehicles is both impressive and growing, such as: Scaled Composites and its WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo system, as well as the Lynx suborbital rocket plane by XCOR Aerospace.

Efforts are also underway at Masten Space Systems, Armadillo Aerospace, Rocketplane Global, and by that oh-so-secretive Blue Origin group that’s bankrolled by Jeff Bezos of fame and fortune.

During last month’s gathering, NASA chief Mike Griffin underscored the fact that private groups can now accomplish suborbital human space sprees on their own dime. Up to a few years ago, he added, that ability could only happen using government dollars.

When asked about how much NASA is doing to encourage commercial suborbital flight, Griffin said: “The brief answer is … as much as I can.” The space agency is in the process of consolidating money from its sounding rocket program, he added, as well as drawing dollars from NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

That cash amounts to no more than a few million bucks — a symbolic as well as real gesture, Griffin said. Those consolidated dollars will be placed into a funding line for the purchase of commercial human suborbital flights, he observed.

“Those [flights] can have many purposes,” Griffin said. “We spend a good deal of money buying suborbital flights at NASA for purely scientific payloads all the time. Some of our best program managers come out of the suborbital program … because that’s where they cut their teeth on learning how to fly real hardware.”

But there’s a big difference in flying payloads on private suborbital craft. For one, the human principal investigator of the experiment could go along for the ride.

Suborbital training program

NASA has other interests in buying rides from suborbital firms.

“We could use commercial suborbital human transportation for early training and qualification of astronauts,” Griffin explained. “If I could buy a seat to suborbital flight for a few hundred thousand dollars … why wouldn’t we have all of our new ‘astros’ make their first flight in such a manner?”

Still, even with that encouragement, Griffin launched his own advisory to private space groups.

“I also need the commercial companies to behave like commercial companies, not like government entities. They’ve got to figure out what their customers want and give it to them … so we’ve got to get suppliers acting like suppliers. But that will happen,” Griffin concluded.

A set of funded studies this fall will identify, as a first step, the utility of purchasing suborbital services, said Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. “We’ve got to do the homework,” with Ames leading the effort.

Worden said one idea has already bubbled to the top.

Up to now trying to get a handle on how well astronauts can read cockpit dials in NASA’s Orion — the replacement for the space shuttle — is tacked together via simulations. Alternatively, human suborbital flights could provide all-in-one acceleration into weightlessness and then reentry forces. In other words … the real deal.

“The question is can it simulate better, more effectively, or cheaper than other means that we use. That’s kind of where we’re going,” Worden told

Portfolio of missions

There is also a bounty of other science missions waiting to be tapped with private suborbital vehicles, other meeting participants said.

“These new vehicles present us with some great opportunities, both in terms of their capabilities and in that they will allow us to conduct research in a new way, by booking commercial services to reach space,” said John Karcz working on the use of piloted suborbital vehicles to carry out a portfolio of missions. He is an astrophysicist with the SETI Institute who is located at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

Karcz told that NASA’s first major step has been the call — which is currently out – for concept studies using the new breed of suborbital space ships to carry out research under the umbrella of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Disciplines under that wing of NASA are: astrophysics, heliophysics, planetary science, and Earth science.

“I am eager to see the ideas for missions that people develop.There is bound to be some overlap with the research currently conducted on suborbital platforms, like sounding rockets. But, I am convinced that the unique capabilities expected from these vehicles — like frequent flights to space, rapid turn-around times, and the ability to carry the scientists themselves onboard — should open up completely new possibilities,” Karcz added.

pizzarebbe wrote:

Peace and Jerusalem’s Blessings to all,

I am an old Trekkie, always have dreamed that the day would come when I could get into space too; my first and only (because in 1973 Deuteranopy was an excluding factor – but that also did me a lot of good, because it eventually turned out to not ne the real thing – the whole story is at ) flight lesson sealed it in me forever and when 1976 I wore a Dr. Spock outfit at the opening of my exhibition at MOCA in S.Francisco I knew it was so much closer…

Mankind just can’t wait for government to make up its so-called mind and provide the resources, so it is up to private initiative, and considering the ROI Space technology is the best investment there is, besides its ciountless spinoffs into our daily life; the difference between what we already have and what we would still be waiting to watch our grandchildren enjoy instead of us who already do, should remove all doubts.

Space is not the Final Frontier, once we really are there, not by just sending up sample humans but by colonizing more planets, stars, galaxies, we will realize that scarcity is a myth and abundance the new rule, with no more hurdles to intellectual fulfillment for the finally united humankind, free to realize its awareness of the beauty surrounding us from its higher observation point.

Ten, Nine, Eight… the countdown is going on; put the money on the table and spin the wheels, les Jeux sont faits!

posted 9/10/2008 6:00:33 PM

Frapaquad: I agree with your coment and to launch from it … think about this the FAA Type certified the 747 for Boeing? … no one had designed a craft that large before? ( except the Sproose Goose… yea I know). I can only guess … but things must have gone somthing like this, Boeing engineer; “These are the proposeles we have”. FAA examineer: Yea! Ok, were do I sign? and back to his desk in a corner office.
My point is, private industry does it best.

posted 9/10/2008 4:46:28 PM

invisible_ghost: If you want to know how the “space Thing” will “Pan Out ” all you halve to do is look to the Hx of Aviation. The gov. started out thinking they new how to best run it i.e. (The Mail Routes in the teens and twentys) and then the millitary with aircraft around the world in the 20s & 30s after a sensational crashes in came the CAB that failed so what do they do comeback with more money and spending and the FAA is born.

The bigest mistake “Private space industry” has made is asking the Fed to come in to regulate it.
Katty Bar The Door!

posted 9/10/2008 4:26:52 PM

Frapaquad wrote:

“I could eventually see the death of NASA in which all the technological development will be from private groups”

Not at all!

NASA still researches aeronautical technology. In the air. Earth’s air.

NASA still researches space itself and the things in it. You don’t need to build your own launch vehicles or spaceships to do this.

NASA does _not_, however, build their own cargo planes or fighter jets. They buy off the shelf C-130s and F-15s and things.

They also don’t design their own paperclips. They buy those from office supply vendors.

The private sector can do this for space, too. NASA can build a moon base that has no immediate commercial value, buying tickets to orbit. They can buy off the shelf inflatables for Mars-bound ships in orbit.

NASA’s R&D mission is by definition not about wasting time on things the commercial sector can do. For NASA to rebuild Dragon would be like wasting money on a slightly bigger Gemini. But they already did Gemini in the 60s. R&D is not about doing something you did in the 60s.

posted 9/10/2008 3:44:52 PM

If the private sector can make a go of this type of venture such as Bigelow’s hotel, then NASA can get back to its roots in Research and Development and let industry go from there. Now its time to go on to the Moon, Mars and Beyond!

posted 9/10/2008 3:08:54 PM

MasterSith wrote:

invisible_ghost – Or, you could look at it this way. If the burden of LEO and Lunar “stuff” is pawned off to the private sector, that could free up the NASA budget for more difficult, risky and wild space research and technology development that a private company might not undertake. Not being a company driven on profit margins can be a blessing for NASA in that it regard.

posted 9/10/2008 2:01:43 PM

I’ve got to wonder if the feds would allow private enterprise to become the dominant players in space commerce. If they do I could eventually see the death of NASA in which all the technological development will be from private groups, but the decision making will be all that’s left of NASA’s powers. The feds would finally have off loaded the huge liability that is NASA, which seems to be a never ending money pit of cost over runs and delayed or cancelled projects. The other side of the coin though is just how much control is the government really ready to relinquish into the hands of the private sector?

posted 9/10/2008 1:31:35 PM

MasterSith wrote:

ssergio2k – Right! I don’t care where the companies are from…although I will admit I’m pro USA of course…but whoever builds the better mousetrap is the one who deserves to get the job, no matter where on the planet they’re from.

posted 9/10/2008 12:10:34 PM

ssergio2k wrote:

Agree, totaly! And I would add cooperation between company and countries as well. Godspeed!

posted 9/10/2008 11:52:01 AM

MasterSith wrote:

I hope it leads to Joint Lunar Operations. One company builds a crew transport. Another builds the launch systems, another builds lunar orbital stations, another builds lunar habitats. All mixed together it’s cheaper, faster and better! Woohoo!

posted 9/10/2008 11:41:10 AM
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