For the first time in the agency’s history, NASA has launched a new effort to allow NASA personnel to fly on future commercial suborbital space flights.
NASA’s Flight Opportunities program has successfully worked with emerging commercial suborbital space flights to carry research cargoes into space for short periods of time in microgravity. In addition, the Flight Opportunities program recently launched a call allowing non-NASA researchers to propose that they accompany their loads in suborbital space.
Now the Suborbital Crew (SubC) office within NASA’s Manned Commercial Flight Program will lay the groundwork for agency staff flying commercial suborbital space transportation systems. The goal of the SubC office is to perform a system qualification, or safety assessment, to allow NASA astronauts, principal investigators, and other NASA personnel to take advantage of these unique capabilities. After the rating, NASA plans to purchase seats in commercial suborbital space transportation systems for the agency’s use.
“We have seen how the industry can develop innovative crew transportation systems that meet NASA’s safety requirements and standards,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for Exploration and Manned Operations at NASA headquarters. “Now we are going to look for a new way to allow NASA personnel to fly in commercial suborbital space systems when considering factors such as experience and flight history.”
Commercial suborbital space flight capabilities are anticipated to be more accessible, affordable and available than missions to the International Space Station (ISS) and could provide NASA with additional manned commercial space flights to conduct activities such as testing and qualification of space flight hardware, human-attended microgravity research, and more training opportunities for astronauts and other NASA personnel. The agency has developed a comprehensive and intensive training program for astronauts and astronaut candidates, and the suborbital crew space transportation services could provide even more training opportunities for NASA astronauts, engineers, scientists, operators, and trainers.
The last time NASA astronauts flew suborbital missions was at the dawn of American manned space flight with Project Mercury and the X-15 hypersonic research program. Today, the industry is preparing to offer suborbital flights as a service, and NASA wants to be a buyer.
“Suborbital human space flight has the potential to provide NASA with a great way to meet the agency’s needs and continue our efforts to enable a robust economy in space,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial space flight development at NASA headquarters. “It is notable that NASA funds were not used for the development of suborbital vehicles, but we can participate in the market as buyers. The US aerospace industry is once again proving that it is technically and financially capable of developing safe, reliable, and cost-effective space systems. “
One of the initial activities for SubC is to work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and commercial suborbital space transportation providers to define the approach to system qualification for NASA personnel, as well as identify specific performance capabilities. that the agency wants.
NASA is seeking responses to a related information request (RFI) to inform the agency’s planning for suborbital crew space transportation systems and plans to hold an industry forum, the details of which will be announced through updates from the RFI.
NASA created the Commercial Manned Program to transport the agency’s astronauts to and from the ISS in low-Earth orbit and awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to develop human space transportation systems that will launch American astronauts on American rockets from U.S. soil. The first test flight with NASA astronauts, the SpaceX Demo-2 mission, was launched on May 30, 2020. NASA’s Commercial Manned Program is based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.