NASA lays out a plan to qualify suborbital spacecraft for its astronauts and scientists

Alan Boyle
Blue Origin employees test procedures for getting spacefliers into the New Shepard suborbital spaceship at the company’s launch facility in West Texas. (Blue Origin via YouTube)

NASA says it’ll formulate a plan to assess the safety of suborbital spacecraft — such as Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship or Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane — so that astronauts, researchers and other space agency personnel can be cleared for takeoff.

Today’s announcement, and the release of an official request for information, follows through on hints about the plan that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine dropped last week.

The effort will be spearheaded by a suborbital crew office within NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which has been overseeing the development of SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft for orbital trips to and from the International Space Station. The first crewed flight in a SpaceX Dragon took place last month.

“We’ve seen how industry can develop innovative crew transportation systems that meet NASA’s safety requirements and standards,” Kathy Lueders, who headed the Commercial Crew Program and recently became NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in today’s news release. “Now we’ll be looking at a new way of enabling NASA personnel to fly on commercial suborbital space systems by considering factors such as flight experience and flight history.”

NASA said the Suborbital Crew Office, or SubC, will put commercial suborbital space transportation systems through a system qualification, or safety assessment, which would open the way for NASA astronauts, principal investigators and other space agency personnel to take advantage of suborbital capabilities.

Suborbital spacecraft aren’t expected to be capable of sustained periods of zero gravity or exposure to the space environment. However, they can provide periods of weightlessness and acceleration that are long enough to test space hardware or give riders a good sense of the sights, sounds and feelings associated with spaceflight.

If NASA gives its go-ahead, commercial suborbital spaceships could be used to train astronauts for operations they’d perform during orbital ascent and re-entry, as well as short-duration operations in microgravity.

Through its Flight Opportunities program, NASA already has been paying Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and other companies to fly scientific experiments. Neither Blue Origin nor Virgin Galactic is flying paying customers yet, but when they do, researchers from outside NASA can fly along with their payloads for a price.

However, NASA has held back from allowing its own employees to fly, due to safety considerations. The Federal Aviation Administration oversees safety requirements for commercial suborbital spaceships, but it’s currently operating under a “fly at your own risk” set of rules.

NASA said it would work with the FAA and companies such as Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic to formulate its own assessment and qualification process. Today’s request for information calls for responses to be submitted by Aug. 7.

In a statement emailed to GeekWire, Virgin Galactic said it was “excited to see NASA advancing their plans to fly agency astronauts and researchers on commercial suborbital spacecraft.”

“Across a range of programs and destinations, NASA is catalyzing innovation and leading the way toward a positive future in space,” Virgin Galactic said. “This comes on the heels of our Space Act agreement with NASA this week about training private astronauts for ISS missions. Public-private partnerships are a key to opening space for good, and we’re inspired for the future of human space exploration.”

Blue Origin’s vice president of global sales, Clay Mowry, also praised NASA’s move.

“We applaud NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s leadership to advance public-private partnerships in space,” Mowry said in a statement emailed to GeekWire. “We’re looking forward to offering suborbital crewed space transportation services to NASA with New Shepard.”

The last time NASA astronauts flew on suborbital space missions was during the early days of the Space Age, when military X-15 rocket planes and Mercury space capsules were the vehicles of choice. This time around, the rides will be provided by private companies rather than government programs.

“Suborbital human spaceflight has the potential to provide NASA 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 spaceflight development at NASA Headquarters. “It is notable that no NASA funds were used for the development of suborbital vehicles, but we can participate in the market as a buyer.”

Update for 12:47 p.m. PT June 23: We’ve added quotes from Blue Origin’s Clay Mowry.

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