NASA Prepared To Think About Flying Investigators On Industrial Suborbital Vehicles

BROOMFIELD, Colo. — As commercial suborbital vehicles capable of carrying the two payloads and people prepare to enter support, NASA officials say they are willing to consider allowing agency-funded researchers to fly on these vehicles.

In an interview following a speech in the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference here Dec. 19, Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator for space technology, said the bureau would be open to permitting researchers financed by NASA’s Flight Opportunities program to fly suborbital spacecraft to carry out their experiments.

“As principal researchers suggest, both internal to NASA and outside, we will do the identical type of procedure that we do using Zero G,” he stated, referring to the business that performs parabolic aircraft flights. Zero G flies investigations as part of the Flight Opportunities system, with researchers flying on the aircraft with their experiments.

Zero G’s aircraft, a Boeing 727, is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Jurczyk reported that, in addition to the FAA supervision, NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center performs an evaluation of the aircraft for analyses chosen from the Flight Opportunities program for flights onto it. “It only makes sure that our grantees and contractors are very safe to fly and then we allow them to go fly,” he said at a speech in the summit.

A similar procedure is not yet set up for suborbital vehicles, but Jurczyk reported the bureau could be open to discovering some procedure analogous to that employed for Zero G. “Moving forward, as these capabilities start coming online, we will find it out,” he stated in the interview.

His remarks come a half years after another agency official opened the door to flying folks on commercial suborbital vehicles through the Flight Opportunities program. Speaking at the identical conference in June 2013, Lori Garver, NASA deputy administrator at the moment, said that previous prohibitions about flying people would be raised.

“We absolutely do not wish to rule out paying for research that may be achieved through an individual spaceflight participant — a researcher or payload specialist — on those vehicles later on,” Garver said then. “That may open up more chances.”

That statement took the app by surprise, using the program’s managers saying in the time they’d yet to craft a plan for allowing people to soar using their experiments. Development of such a policy endured years of flaws, in part because of Garver’s departure from NASA only a few months following her announcement in addition to extended delays in the evolution of commercial suborbital vehicles capable of carrying people.

“It mostly resulted in a whole lot of ostriches sticking heads in the sand for a few years,” said Erika Wagner, business development director at Blue Origin, through a panel discussion in the summit Dec. 18.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle is currently carrying out research payloads, including for Flight Opportunities, but without folks on board. On the other hand, the vehicle will have the ability to support assignments carrying payloads and people later on. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle will even fly explore payloads followed closely by a payload specialist.

Wagner said she has witnessed some progress as both firms’ vehicles advance through flight testing. “The heads are all back out. They are looking around trying to understand what actually are the obstacles, what is the accountability regime.”

Those liability issues now, she stated, prevent NASA civil servants from flying to the Zero G aircraft although outside researchers whose experiments have been financed by NASA are able to achieve that. Jurczyk, in his address at the summit, said that’s because they’d need to sign a liability waiver to achieve that. “Right now, that’s only NASA policy. We don’t have a powerful mission need to do this,” he said. “That is current policy. I’m not saying it is likely to be coverage indefinitely and ever.”

Scientists who would like to fly experiments on suborbital vehicles argue that such assignments are analogous to fieldwork — hugely hazardous — conducted in other areas. “Marine biologists and marine geologists have to place themselves at that exact same operationally risky environment by going to the bottom of the sea, into a deep sea vent,” said Dan Durda, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, during the Dec. 18 panel. “These vehicles provide us as area scientists, that opportunity to get in the field the way that biologists and geologists do.”

Advocates of commercial suborbital research, such as the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s Suborbital Applications Research Group, have been pushing to permit NASA to finance human-tended experiments.

“They are working quietly to get out the word that there are quite definite requirements for human-tended payloads,” said Steven Collicott, a Purdue University professorat a conference speech Dec. 19. “We have discovered some reassuring words and we’re working quietly to attempt to move that forward.”

Others in the conference reported a decades-old precedent that indicates present obstacles to flying NASA-funded researchers on commercial suborbital vehicles can be overcome. In the 1980s, several payload specialists flew on the space shuttle, including Charles Walker, a McDonnell Douglas engineer that was part of three shuttle missions.

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Walker, at the Dec. 18 board discussion, noticed that on these shuttle missions he and his family signed liability waivers. He supported similar strategies to permit researchers to fly commercial suborbital cars.

“The surroundings opened up from suborbital flight and, in a greater scale, orbital flight, are laboratory surroundings,” he said. “You should be there to optimize the replies that are coming from the conduct in that environment.”