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SS2 illustration
As SpaceShipTwo prepares for flight, some think it might have a bigger market performing research than flying tourists. (credit: Virgin Galactic)

Building up a new market for suborbital spaceflight

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Later today Virgin Galactic will unveil SpaceShipTwo (SS2), its suborbital spacecraft, at Scaled Composites’ facility in Mojave, California. Much of the talk there by company officials and among the hundreds of invited guests, as well as the subsequent media coverage, will be about space tourism. This, of course, is hardly surprising: companies like Virgin Galactic got into the commercial suborbital human spaceflight market precisely because of the sizable projected demand for those flights, a drive that dates back to the creation of the original X Prize over a decade ago.

However, space tourism isn’t the only market such vehicles can serve. The same vehicles that can give paying customers the ride of a lifetime can also serve as testbeds for scientific research, technology demonstration, and even education. These potential applications had been largely overshadowed by space tourism in recent years, deemed to be secondary markets—and certainly not as novel or glamorous as space tourism. However, in the last year there has been growing interest in these fields, to the point that one advocate for them believes that they might become bigger markets than even tourism.

Scientific interest

To be certain, vehicle developers have not overlooked these markets. A few companies, like Masten Space Systems and TGV Rockets, have focused primarily on them, at least in the initial stages of their business plans. Earlier this year Virgin Galactic showed an interest in these markets, which company president Will Whitehorn called “the bonus” to their primary market of space tourism (see “Virgin looks beyond space tourism”, The Space Review, February 9, 2009).

“It took me several years to get 12 data points on the space shuttle,” Colwell said. “We could do that basically in a day with these next-generation suborbital vehicles.”

What was unclear, though, was just how much interest there would be from potential customers, in particularly university researchers who have relied on sounding rockets or flights on NASA or commercial aircraft to perform research that couldn’t be flown on satellites or the space station. Would these people—and the organizations who fund them—be willing to use untried vehicles for flying experiments suborbitally?

The answer, for at least some, appears to be yes. This summer the Commercial Spaceflight Federation—an industry group that prior to June was known as the Personal Spaceflight Federation—established an advisory group known as the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group (SARG). Comprised of scientists from a variety of disciplines, from planetary science to space life sciences to microgravity physics, and led by Alan Stern, the former NASA associate administrator in charge of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, SARG has emerged as an advocacy group for what it calls research and education missions (REM) and an interface between the scientific community and the suborbital industry.

What makes these suborbital vehicles under develop so attractive to researchers is their planned combination of low costs and high flight rates. A flight on a Black Brant sounding rocket can cost over $2 million, about an order of magnitude more than a seat on a SS2 flight, Stern noted during a session about suborbital science at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in New Mexico in October. Moreover, sounding rocket flights are relatively infrequent, while some suborbital vehicles are planning to fly multiple times a day. “It’s really a game-changer,” he said.

The research already proposed for these vehicles is diverse. Josh Colwell, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida, is interested in studying the dynamics of ring particles in microgravity, and comparing that to models of planetary and ring formation. “It took me several years to get 12 data points on the space shuttle,” he said. “We could do that basically in a day with these next-generation suborbital vehicles.”

Another researcher interested in the microgravity environment suborbital vehicles will provide is Steven Collicott of Purdue University, who studies fluid dynamics in low-gravity environments. He isn’t waiting for the vehicles under development to start flying: he is planning to fly a reduced gravity experiment on an Armadillo Aerospace vehicle as soon as this month. “We’re really trying to get started and develop this new laboratory,” he said.

Other scientists see suborbital vehicles as an ideal tool for studying the upper atmosphere, particularly a region dubbed the “ignorosphere” that is too high to be studied by aircraft or balloons. “We’re talking about exploring the last frontier in the Earth’s atmosphere,” said Larry Paxton of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. That region, at altitudes of 85 to 105 kilometers, is at the “gateway to space”, he said, as it’s a transition from the fluid atmosphere of lower altitudes to a “free-streaming environment”.

Not surprisingly, there is also interest in using suborbital vehicles in the life sciences, particularly for studying human reactions to microgravity. One thing that sets these vehicles apart from microgravity flights or orbital spaceflight missions is the potentially large, diverse group of people who will be flying on these spacecraft as potential test subjects. “Right now we study 35-, 40-year-old healthy astronauts. This is a very narrow population,” said Erika Wagner of MIT. Extending this population to a much larger group, including people with chronic health problems or on some kinds of medication, can help lead to some “interesting results”.

“More than anything, SARG’s job is to educate” the research community and federal agencies, said Stern

But will spaceflight participants who will be paying up to $200,000 for a brief suborbital trip be willing to be test subjects? Stern carried out an unscientific survey of ISPCS attendees during his conference session. Nearly everyone in the audience said they would be willing to participate in brief pre- and post-flight tests, and about the same said they would be willing to participate in noninvasive tests, such as wearing a monitor. Surprisingly, about half the audience said they would be willing to participate in invasive tests on their flights, such as drawing blood.

Building interest, seeking funding

SARG has held two meetings since its inception: one in Boulder, Colorado, in August and second meeting in Washington, DC, last month. The Washington meeting included discussions ranging from updates on its outreach efforts to a logo for the group (playing off the group’s acronym, one design had the three chevrons of a sergeant’s insignia) to a trailer for a proposed reality TV show about researchers preparing to fly into space. “More than anything, SARG’s job is to educate,” said Stern, including both potential user communities and federal agencies.

To further build awareness of and interest in research on suborbital vehicles, SARG is working with other organizations to organize a conference on the subject, the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, in February in Boulder. The two-and-a-half-day event is designed to bring together scientists and vehicle developers to learn about each others’ capabilities and requirements.

Already, though, some researchers are striking deals with vehicle providers. Last month Blue Origin lifted the veil of secrecy around its vehicle development just enough to announce that it has selected three experiments to fly on “Phase 1” of the development program for its New Shepard suborbital vehicle. Microgravity experiments by Callicott, Colwell, and John Pojman of LSU will fly “in the coming years”, according to a statement on the Blue Origin web site, without providing any more specifics about those flights—or any other details about the vehicle development effort, for that matter. (Stern, in addition to chairing the SARG, is also Blue Origin’s advisor for REM applications.)

“We think that at least in the middle term, this may actually be bigger market than the tourism market,” Stern said of suborbital research. “It may be the killer app for suborbital spaceflight.”

Getting more experiments on more vehicles, though, will require more than just outreach to researchers and vehicle developers: it will also require the support of NASA, a major source of funding for such experiments. In the past few years the agency has given mixed messages about the level of interest in funding research on commercial suborbital vehicles. Some agency officials, including then-administrator Mike Griffin, have spoken positively about using such vehicles for research (see “Hoping for a reality tomorrow”, The Space Review, March 10, 2008). But turning those expressions of interest into concrete programs has been problematic at best.

That, however, appears to be changing. In October NASA announced the creation of the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR, pronounced “cruiser”) program to foster development of suborbital research efforts with commercial providers. Charles Miller, a senior advisor for commercial efforts at NASA, said at the SARG meeting the agency has tentatively budgeted $2.5 million for CRuSR for fiscal year 2010, with $1 million each coming from the Science and Exploration Systems Mission Directorates (SMD and ESMD) and $500,000 from the Innovative Partnerships Program (IPP).

The actual money allocated for CRuSR will depend on NASA’s final 2010 appropriations (Congress has yet to reconcile the separate spending bills passed earlier this year by the House and Senate) as well as the success researchers have winning funding for suborbital science proposals. Miller said that, for the first time, commercial reusable suborbital vehicles will be included as a platform alongside sounding rockets, balloons, and others for scientists submitting proposals for NASA’s Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Science (ROSES) program in 2010. How much money CRuSR gets from SMD will depend on how well proposals that include those platforms stand up to peer review. “If it comes back that there’s $10 million or $20 million in research because the proposals were so outstanding and so many, then they’ll fund $10 or $20 million,” he said. On the other hand, if no proposals using such vehicles make the cut, the $1 million in SMD funding will be used for something else.

CRuSR will also put some resources into learning more about the capabilities of suborbital vehicle providers. On Friday NASA’s Ames Research Center, where CRuSR is based, issued a request for information (RFI) asking suborbital vehicle developers to provide information on the capabilities of their vehicles, including microgravity environment. “NASA understands that some of this information may not be readily available at this point in time,” the RFI states. “However, for scientists to design mission concepts and payloads suitable to the commercial suborbital environment and flight profile, NASA will benefit by obtaining as much information as possible.”

Miller told attendees of the SARG meeting that any mixed messages they might have gotten from NASA before were a thing of the past, noting current administrator Charles Bolden’s endorsement of the CRuSR program in a speech in October. “With top-level direction from the administrator, that will tamp down” any mixed messages about suborbital science from elsewhere in the agency. “It changed the tone inside the agency very fast.”

There is, though, not yet unanimity within NASA about the efficacy of commercial suborbital vehicles. A few days before the SARG meeting, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly was asked at the SpaceVision 2009 conference in Tucson, Arizona, about how the astronaut corps might use such vehicles. Although astronaut training has been one potential use for such vehicles cited by Griffin and others in the past, Kelly thought differently. “I don’t see us in the astronaut office ever flying on something like SpaceShipOne,” Kelly said. “I don’t think our office would be using that vehicle for anything.”

Scientists and other advocates of suborbital research on commercial vehicles, though, continue to see these vehicles as providing a novel, cost-effective platform for a wide range of experiments, and in turn helping vehicle operators diversity their customer base. Stern, for one, sees suborbital research as potentially a huge market. How huge? “We think that at least in the middle term, this may actually be bigger market than the tourism market,” he said at the ISPCS. Stern argued that while a typical space tourist will fly only once, a scientist will likely want multiple flights to perform their research. “This is an opportunity to sell seats not by the ones or twos, but by the dozens, if nor larger.”

“It may be the killer app for suborbital spaceflight,” he added.

That’s a point that probably will get lost Monday in the spectacle of the SpaceShipTwo rollout and subsequent coverage, which will focus far more on space tourism than anything else. But while suborbital is seen by some as a stepping stone to eventual orbital flight, suborbital space tourism might be the enabler for research and other applications, which not improve the bottom line for the companies that fly them but could open the door to innovations with much greater implications than just flying tourists.