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NASA Nixes Suborbital Training Flights for Astronauts

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
March 22, 2023
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NASA Nixes Suborbital Training Flights for Astronauts
Richard Branson floats aboard SpaceShipTwo during a suborbital flight on July 11, 2021.

NASA has nixed the idea of suborbital training flights for its astronauts aboard vehicles launched by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

Chris Gerace, manager of NASA’s Suborbital Crew program, told attendees at last month’s Next-generation Suborbital Researchers conference that the space agency had evaluated its program and decided the suborbital training flights don’t meet the needs of astronauts heading to the International Space Station or the moon.

Astronauts train for spaceflights on parabolic aircraft flights that provide brief periods of microgravity. They also train in a neutral buoyancy pool at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Virgin Galactic charges $450,000 for a seat on its VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo suborbital rocket plane. Blue Origin has not announced what it charges for seats on its New Shepard vehicle.

While ruling out suborbital training flights, Gerace said NASA is interested in flying agency personnel on suborbital flights to tend to experiments and technology demonstrations. His program is in the middle of “deep dives” into New Shepard’s launch escape system and SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid motor. Reviews are expected to be completed early next year.

Gerace said NASA will not certify the vehicles to fly agency personnel as it did with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, which are designed to fly crews to the space station. NASA will instead evaluate the safety of each vehicle and the safety cultures at Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

Both companies have flown dedicated research missions with automated experiments, but neither one has flown with a researcher aboard. A Virgin Galactic employee carried a handheld experiment that she activated during a flight test in 2021.

SpaceShipTwo configured for a researcher to tend to his or her experiment. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

NASA is providing funding for outside researchers to fly suborbital through its Flight Opportunities program. Southwest Research Institute’s Alan Stern, who organized the conference, will fly aboard Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity on a familiarization flight at some point after the company begins commercial service. Paid flights are currently scheduled to begin in the second quarter of this year.

Stern will fly a second time with NASA funding. He will test a low-light camera to evaluate it and the potential of SpaceShipTwo to perform astronomical observations.

Steve Collicott of Purdue University will also fly aboard SpaceShipTwo with Flight Opportunities funding. He will conduct an experiment on how liquids behave in microgravity that will applications to non-toxic green propellants and water tanks. The flight will provide three minutes of microgravity time.

VSS Unity has four seats in its passenger cabin. Those seats can be replaced with racks holding four experiment lockers, or a mix of racks and seats for researchers. Virgin Galactic is marketing experiment lockers at $150,000 each. The company sells seats on VSS Unity for $450,000.

Virgin Galactic is scheduled to fly two Italian Air Force officers — Col. Walter Villadei and Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi — and Italian researcher Pantaleone Carlucci on a commercial research flight during the second quarter of this year. Beth Moses, who is the company’s chief astronaut trainer, will accompany the researchers in the passenger cabin.

“The goal of the mission is to evaluate and measure the effects of the transitional phase from gravity to microgravity on the human body. Other payloads on board will study the effect of the microgravity environment on a range of chemical and physical properties. By testing and evaluating physiological and technological responses in sub-orbital flight, the mission aims to produce insights relevant to current and future spaceflight systems and technologies,” Virgin Galactic said in a press release.

WhiteKnightTwo on approach to Spaceport America. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic pilots Michael Masucci and CJ Sturckow will fly VSS Unity and Nicola Pecile and Kelly Latimer will fly the WhiteKnightTwo mothership VSS Unity.

Virgin Galactic has reserved 100 of its first 1,000 seats for research flights. The rest will fly paying passengers, some of whom put down deposits way back in 2005 when the company was promising commercial service would begin as soon as 2008.

2 responses to “NASA Nixes Suborbital Training Flights for Astronauts”

  1. Terry Rawnsley says:

    Good idea. Why pay for suborbital when the vomit comet works just as well for weightlessness training and the ISS is better for experiments in zero gravity.

    • Thomas Matula says:

      More to the point, the article basically states that non-astronaut NASA employees will be making the flights with their experiments. This shows that it is only a matter of time before NASA decides the same is true of orbital spaceflight. This may well be the first indication the era of astronauts is ending.

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