NASA to Fund Researchers to Fly on Suborbital Vehicles, Maybe Astronauts

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

After spending a few years in hibernation, the Next-generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) is being held in Colorado this week. I wasn’t able to attend this year, but I’ve been following all the action on Twitter.

In a keynote address on Monday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine floated the idea of letting the space agency’s astronauts fly aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicles. He also discussed certifying the systems to comply with a subset of NASA’s human ratings requirements.

The announcement came as NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program released a solicitation under which the space agency would fund researchers to fly aboard the two spacecraft with their technology demonstration payloads. Thus far, the program has bought space on flights for scientific experiments and technology demonstrations only.

Chief Astronaut Trainer Beth Moses floats in the cabin as David Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci pilot VSS. Unity. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Flying people on the vehicles raises concerns because there are no government safety standards in place to protect passengers or crew members. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is prohibited from issuing any regulations until there is a close call or another accident.

The states of New Mexico and Texas — where Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin operate, respectively — have passed laws limiting the companies’ liabilities for injuries and deaths of spaceflight participants to incidents of gross negligence or intentional harm.

NASA made it clear in the solicitation researchers funded to fly under the program are on their own.

“NASA holds no safety responsibility for suborbital flights conducted under this solicitation. All flights will be regulated by the FAA. An awardee’s institution and the flight service provider are responsible for meeting all applicable local, state, and federal regulations,” the solicitation said.

“The space flight participant employer must accept safety responsibility for the space flight participant funded through this solicitation. In order to understand the safety risks, the space flight participant, an Authorized Organizational Representative (AOR) from the proposing organization, and the space flight participant employer must be informed of launch and re-entry risks by the flight provider (also known as the ‘operator’, per 14 CFR 460.45), either before submitting a proposal or before award of a selected proposal,” the document added.

NASA has imposed a 95 percent reliability requirement for the reusable vehicles before researchers can fly aboard them.

For non-expendable payloads or space flight participant involvement –

No more than one launch accident or reentry accident (combined) in the last 14 flights of a vehicle type as identified in FAA licenses, permits or certifications held by the vehicle operator. 14 nominal flights corresponds with a demonstrated reliability of 95% *

*Launch accident, reentry accident, and nominal are defined in 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 401.5 and referenced by 14 CFR 431. Vehicle type has been clarified in FAA guidance to mean vehicles similar in design and structure as licensed or permitted by the FAA. For instance, the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules are different vehicle types. The Space Transportation System (‘Space Shuttle’) vehicles are considered the same vehicle type.

New Shepard has launched 12 times with no one aboard. Eleven of the flights exceeded the Karman line at 100 km (62.1 miles), which is widely recognized as the boundary of space. On another flight, New Shepard flew just short of that altitude.

New Shepard crew capsule (Credit: Blue Origin)

New Shepard’s crew capsule landed safely under parachute on each flight. On the first launch, the booster crashed while attempting to land. The failure had no impact on the safety of the capsule because it happened after the two parts of New Shepard has separated.

Virgin Galactic has conducted nine powered flights of SpaceShipTwo since 2013. The first vehicle, VSS Enterprise, broke apart in flight on its fourth powered test on Oct. 31, 2014. Co-pilot Mike Alsbury died in the crash.

Its successor, VSS Unity, has conducted five successful powered flights and a number of glide tests on which the engine was not fired. Two of the powered flights exceeded 50 miles (80.4 km), which the United States uses as the boundary of space. Three other flights reached lower altitudes.

Virgin Galactic VSS Unity in flight on Feb. 22, 2019. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

The prospect of more revenues from NASA is potentially very good news for Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. A key question is what it is going to cost NASA to fly researchers, astronauts and their experiments.

Virgin Galactic said it will raise its ticket price above the current $250,000 per seat level when it restarts ticket sales. That could occur later this year. Blue Origin has said its tickets will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars once they are put on sale.

New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo can provide several minutes of continuous microgravity conditions. Aircraft flying parabolic trajectories can provide more total time in microgravity, but in intervals of about 30 seconds each. However, aircraft flights are probably a lot cheaper.

Blue Origin revealed plans on Monday to spin New Shepard in flight to simulate the one-sixth gravity that astronauts will encounter on the moon. That capability will be of great interest to NASA, which has been given the goal of landing two astronauts at the lunar south pole in 2024.

Lunar gravity can be simulated on parabolic flights in a series of short intervals.

Certifying New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo to carry NASA astronauts poses a number of issues. Which of the agency’s human rating requirements will be applied? Which will be discarded?

Neither vehicle was designed with a set of certification standards in mind. Would certification require expensive retrofits to meet NASA’s requirements? Would the space agency help pay for the upgrades? Would the costs be worth it for the companies?

How much insight would the space agency want into the companies’ design, manufacturing and operational processes to feel comfortable flying its astronauts on the vehicles? How much would the companies be willing to reveal?

Both New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo are designed for shirt sleeve environments without pressure suits. Does NASA want to take that risk? Adding pressures suits and equipment could significantly increase the weight of the two vehicles.

The first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, will carry four passengers and two pilots. Virgin Galactic has been working to reduce the weight of VSS Unity and future spaceships to carry up to six passengers and reach high altitudes like the Karman line.

New Shepard has flown above the Karman line on all but one of its flights. It is a source of pride in Blue Origin’s competition with Virgin Galactic that there is no question about whether the company has reached space. Would modifications that add weight make it difficult to achieve those altitudes?

If the systems are upgraded to NASA’s human rating standards, would the liability laws that protect the companies from lawsuits still apply? Would it be fair to space tourists to limit lawsuits to cases of gross negligence or intentional harm?

It will be interesting to see how all these questions and issues are addressed in the months ahead.