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Lynx model
XCOR Aerospace brought a full-sized model of its Lynx suborbital spaceplane to the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) last week in Broomfield, Colorado. (credit: J. Foust)

Suborbital research enters a time of transition

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Several years ago, the idea of using the new generation of suborbital reusable launch vehicles under development, like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx, for research applications was not widely accepted. These and other vehicles were seen primarily as serving the space tourism market. “It was like pulling teeth to get people to come” to a conference about using such vehicles for research, recalled Alan Stern, the former NASA associate administrator for science who organized the first Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) in early 2010.

Scientists, vehicle developers, and others did come to that NSRC, and the three that followed, including the one last week in the Denver suburb of Broomfield, Colorado. With a community of researchers now sold on the potential benefits of using suborbital reusable launch vehicles—low cost, high flight rates, and in some cases human-tended payloads—versus sounding rockets or orbital platforms, the challenge apparent at last week’s meeting was keeping the timelines for developing experiments and the vehicles that will fly them in sync.

Seeking more payloads

At that first NSRC, held in nearby Boulder, NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver announced that NASA would fund a new suborbital research program, called Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR, pronounced like “cruiser”) at $15 million a year for five years. “We believe in the suborbital market,” Garver said at that meeting (see “Suborbital research gets ready for liftoff”, The Space Review, March 1, 2010). CRuSR would fund the flights of experiments on those suborbital vehicles.

“The evolution of this was probably more difficult that we have thought,” said Young. “We were a little bit optimistic about seeing that growth.”

CRuSR has since become the Flight Opportunities program, whose scope now includes aircraft that fly reduced-gravity parabolas and high-altitude balloons. (As with CRuSR, Flight Opportunities only pays for the flights of experiments; funds for the experiments themselves must come from other sources.) On Friday, just after NSRC, NASA announced the selection of 21 more payloads from the latest Announcement of Flight Opportunities (AFO) through that program. The total number of experiment selected through the six AFOs now tops 100.

However, the majority of the experiments selected to date have not been those seeking to fly on suborbital reusable launch vehicles. Of the 21 payloads selected in the latest AFO, only three are seeking flights on such vehicles; 14 are instead flying on parabolic aircraft and five on high-altitude balloons. (The totals include one experiment planning to fly on both balloons and suborbital vehicles.)

“The evolution of this was probably more difficult that we have thought,” said Ron Young, Flight Opportunities program manager, during an NSRC session June 5. “We were hoping a couple years ago, three years ago, that we would be much higher up in the utilization curve with suborbitals. We were a little bit optimistic about seeing that growth.”

One issue that may be hindering utilization of suborbital payloads has been that, since the program’s inception as CRuSR, NASA has been willing to fund the flights of experiments only, and not people, either to operate the payloads or as the subjects of experiments themselves. “At this time NASA will not sponsor people to fly on commercial balloon or suborbital reusable launch vehicles,” the text of the latest AFO solicitation stated, emphasizing the point in that document in a red, italic font.

That restriction appears to be going away, though. Speaking via videoconference, Garver told NSRC attendees June 3 that NASA would now be open to flying people on suborbital vehicles. “We absolutely do not want to rule out paying for research that could be done by an individual spaceflight participant—a researcher or payload specialist—on these vehicles in the future,” she said.

Garver said this change in policy was intended to address a “misinterpretation” of the original intent of the program to support both researchers and suborbital vehicle developers. “Our thinking has evolved,” she said. This change, she indicated, had just been made by NASA and had the approval of NASA administrator Charles Bolden.

Flight Opportunities program officials at NSRC suggested that they hadn’t expected Garver’s announcement about supporting human spaceflights, and were still trying to work out how to accommodate them in the program. “This is fairly new information, and we’re still trying to process how we’re going to do that,” said Laguduva “LK” Kubendran, program executive for the Flight Opportunities program at NASA Headquarters. “We’ll provide some policy guidelines soon.”

Conference attendees welcomed the policy change. “For the first time now at the top of the agency, there’s an opening to fly researchers and educators on the vehicles with the experiments, which is a huge breakthrough,” said Stern at a press conference shortly after Garver’s presentation at NSRC.

Potential investors “look at the industry and say, ‘I don’t see a research market here,’” said Mahoney. “The number one thing I would love to be able to lay down in front of them is a backlog of flights.”

Vehicle developers pressed researchers to apply to the Flight Opportunities program and help build up a backlog of experiments, even if the vehicles that can fly them aren’t ready yet, to demonstrate to NASA, the research community, and even potential investors in companies developing suborbital vehicles that there is a market for suborbital research.

Potential investors “look at the industry and say, ‘I don’t see a research market here,’” said Sean Mahoney, chief operating officer of Masten Space Systems, a company developing vertical takeoff and landing suborbital vehicles. “The number one thing I would love to be able to lay down in front of them is a backlog of flights.” That backlog, he said, could come from the Flight Opportunities program, if more researchers applied to the program.

“There’s not enough applications coming in to the Flight Opportunities program,” he said. “My appeal to you is to help by applying to the Flight Opportunities program.”

Will Pomerantz, vice president for special projects at Virgin Galactic, echoed that call for participation in Flight Opportunities. “This needs to be the year for proposals for all of you in the audience here,” he said during a conference session.

Vehicle updates

This year’s NSRC put a greater emphasis on what those vehicles under development can offer to current and potential researchers. The conference featured several “deep dive” sessions where vehicle developers talked about the status and capabilities of their vehicles, and in some cases included presentations by researchers who have already signed up to fly on those vehicles.

Virgin Galactic came to the conference on the heels of a major milestone: the first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo, which took place in the skies above Mojave Air and Space Port on April 29. SpaceShipTwo has not flown since then, but Pomerantz said the company was on track for reaching space “right around the end of this year,” staying on a schedule to “begin our commercial service some time in the next calendar year.”

XCOR Aerospace is also beginning to begin flight tests of its Lynx Mark I vehicle late this year. “It’s a very exciting time at XCOR,” chief operating officer Andrew Nelson said. The company was working in several areas to close out the design of the vehicle and complete its assembly, including work on the wings and the nose section of the spaceplane.

Unlike Virgin and XCOR, Masten has made several flights of experiments for the Flight Opportunities program, including low-level tests of an automated control system called the Guidance Embedded Navigator Integration Environment (GENIE) for Draper Labs, using Masten’s Xombie vehicle. The company is also developing Xaero B, a larger vehicle capable of flying to several kilometers; it replaces the original Xaero vehicle that was lost on a test flight last September. There are also long-term plans for Xogdor, a vehicle that can fly to 100 kilometers.

“2013 is a critical year for Masten,” Mahoney said. “We have a lot of things we’re trying to do, and not a lot of money to do it with.” However, by the end of the year, he expected the company would have sufficient revenues to pay for its operations without having to use capital it raised through investments.

Blue Origin declined to provide a timeline for beginning suborbital flights. “We’ll fly when we’re ready, and not a day sooner,” Wagner said.

Mahoney, though, indicated that the future direction of the company will depend on where there is customer interest, which could mean shifting direction away from developing vehicles that could fly to space to vehicles like Xombie that test technologies like landing systems at lower altitudes. “I need to decide what to build next, and I need you to help me figure that out,” he told conference attendees. “Am I building more landing technology tools—do I build a successor to Xombie—or do I build Xogdor?”

Perhaps the most interest at NSRC, though, was in the update provided by Blue Origin, the vehicle developer funded by founder Jeff Bezos that has been working on suborbital and orbital vehicle technologies in relative secrecy. Although most of the attention the company has received in the last couple of years has focused on its orbital vehicle development work as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program, the company is still planning to develop its New Shepard suborbital vehicle.

One major development in New Shepard, according to company officials, is a change in propulsion. Previous test vehicles had used several engines powered by kerosene and hydrogen peroxide. The next vehicle under development will use Blue Origin’s BE-3 engine, a liquid-oxygen/liquid-hydrogen engine that produces up to 445,000 newtons (100,000 pounds-force) of thrust. That engine has undergone tests both at the company’s West Texas site and NASA’s Stennis Space Center.

A single BE-3 engine, designed for deep throttlability, will replace the five kerosene/peroxide engines in the previous Blue Origin test vehicle. “It’s really exciting to have an engine that is so capable, so reusable, so operable, and we’re excited to be putting that on to the next vehicle,” said Erika Wagner, business development manager at Blue Origin, during the company’s NSRC presentation.

When that next vehicle, or the operational New Shepard vehicle, will be available remains a mystery, though. Blue Origin is not yet part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities program and has not made any deals to fly people or experiments beyond a few pathfinder payloads awarded a few years ago, and declined to provide a timeline for beginning suborbital flights. “We’ll fly when we’re ready, and not a day sooner,” Wagner said.

A time of transition

Getting those vehicles flying has been the biggest obstacle to suborbital research: other than low-level flight tests, like Masten’s Xombie flights, it’s difficult for proponents of research on suborbital reusable vehicles to demonstrate the benefits of using such vehicles. And that wait has been a long one: at the first NSRC in February 2010, companies talked about vehicle flight tests in 2011 and commercial service in 2012; now, they’re talking about commercial flights in 2014 at the earliest.

“I think there’s been a lot of maturation” in the suborbital research field since that initial NSRC, Stern said, citing the development of the Flight Opportunities program as one key example. “Those are huge sea changes that are a little bit masked by the fact that vehicles aren’t flying yet. But what we do know is that we no longer hear about the year after next, at least in regards to the leaders in the suborbital field. They’re talking about next year, and it is converging.”

“I think there’s a little bit of impatience, which I think is natural,” he added, “but I’m very optimistic.”

“I really think that we are on the on deck circle, on our way to the batter’s box, with some of these companies to soon be routinely operational or at least initially operational within the next year,” said Lopez-Alegria.

The delays in developing suborbital vehicles, he said, actually have benefitted suborbital researchers, who needed the time for NASA to set up the Flight Opportunities program and solicit experiments. “Only now, after three years, do we have people who are ready to start tapping their feet, and the vehicles are almost ready for us,” he said. “The timing almost turned out exactly right.”

“It’s a transition period in the industry,” said Steven Collicott, a Purdue University professor who next month is taking over for Stern as chairman of the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group (SARG), a working group within the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) that promotes the use of suborbital vehicles for research. “It’s a great time to take over SARG.”

He and others think the time has come for suborbital research to shift from the realm of development to operations. “After quite a few years of thinking that we were really close,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former astronaut and current president of the CSF, “I really think that we are on the on deck circle, on our way to the batter’s box, with some of these companies to soon be routinely operational or at least initially operational within the next year.”

“Routine, low-cost, reliable access to space will be a huge breakthrough for the research community,” he said. It’s a breakthrough some have been awaiting for years now, and one that that finally—maybe—is just around the corner.