Next-Generation Suborbital Spaceflight: A Research Bonanza at 100 Kilometers

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In 1946, when the U.S. Army formed its Rocket Research Panel, only a tiny fraction of the nation's astronomers, atmospheric scientists, biologists and solar physicists appreciated the power that access to space would have on their research. Yet just a decade later, rocketborne research had become so powerful a tool that it formed the centerpiece of space efforts in 1957's International Geophysical Year (IGY).

Today, in late-2009, the research community is very much "in 1946" regarding the powerful opportunities that next-generation suborbital vehicles like Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, Blue Origin's New Shepard, XCOR's Lynx and others offer for research, education and public outreach (EPO) activities in space.

Yet in less than two years, one or two suborbital spacelines are expected to be operating commercially. In four years, there may well be five or six such spacelines, and daily, if not more frequent, flights may be common. Though primarily perceived as space tourist vehicles, the potential of suborbital flight services for Research and Education Mission (REM) applications is likely to make them at least as widely used in the coming decade for REM applications as for the tourist market. This is due to the revolutionary capabilities that reusable, low-cost, high flight rate, manned and unmanned next-generation suborbital vehicles offer to REM users, including:

  • Frequent access to space at low cost with hundreds to thousands of experiment opportunities annually at typical launch costs of $200,000 per seat or $1,000 per pound of equipment -- that's 10 times to 100 times the launch rate of current suborbital rockets, at launch costs of one or two dimes on the dollar compared to today's costs.

  • Far better microgravity than aircraft provide, with 10 times the continuous microgravity time and a 100-times lower disturbance-level microgravity environment.

  • Direct access to the crucial yet largely unexplored "ignorosphere" of our atmosphere -- the region too high for balloons and aircraft, but too low for satellites between 50 kilometers and 140 kilometers.

  • Much gentler rides for payloads than current suborbital rockets; after all, if tourist grandmothers and grandfathers will be flying in these vehicles, then many kinds of standard, off-the-shelf laboratory equipment can as well.

  • Simple and fast safety-integration processes, more akin to zero-gravity aircraft than the space shuttle or the international space station (ISS).

  • The opportunity to fly larger payloads than can be flown inside the shuttle or ISS, for example, allowing sophisticated medical imagers to study test subjects in microgravity for the first time.

  • Flexible operations that will include worldwide launch basing, the ability to launch at specific times coincident with phenomenology, in synch with classes, in synch with circadian rhythms, and rapid (minutes scale) access to samples, test subjects, etc. post-flight -- something no human flight systems offer today.

  • The opportunity to fly researchers with their payloads, opening space microgravity, life sciences and remote sensing experimentation up to scientists and educators in the same way that researchers have previously exploited on-the-spot presence in the deep ocean, polar environments and high-performance aircraft.

The opportunity to fly researchers with their payloads, opening space microgravity, life sciences and remote sensing experimentation up to scientists and educators in the same way that researchers have previously exploited on-the-spot presence in the deep ocean, polar environments and high-performance aircraft.

These and other attractive aspects of the coming next-generation suborbital vehicles make them attractive tools to research fields as diverse as microgravity physics and chemistry, space life sciences, atmospheric science, auroral and ionospheric research, and instrument test and demonstration in the actual space environment. Other research applications, including astrophysics, solar physics and planetary science will also benefit, but even more so will education and public outreach, where the potential to connect space to students and the public on an immediate basis is revolutionary.

Suborbital companies have already recognized the value of the REM market. After all, relatively few individuals can afford to be tourists at $200,000 per flight, and even fewer will buy more than one or two tickets. However, government agencies will find $200,000 price points for space access to be easily affordable, and governments are likely to make their purchases in bulk, year after year -- making a far more attractive sales market than are onesie-twosie purchases by affluent tourists. With revolutionary space access costs near $200,000 per launch seat or $1,000 per pound for equipment, government agencies as diverse as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Geological Society, National Weather Service, Department of Defense, NASA and the Department of Education will likely each find numerous affordable suborbital applications.

And the REM market isn't limited to the United States. And at these prices virtually every one of the 190-plus nations on Earth can afford a human spaceflight program, for the first time exploiting the flight of their nationals and their experiments on suborbital spaceflight. The returns -- for national pride, for education, for motivating students into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers by seeing their citizens conducting operations in space, and for basic research and development purposes -- will be high.

Simply put, we believe next-generation suborbital spaceflight offers to make space access frequent, inexpensive and routine for researchers and their payloads alike -- something never before achievable in spaceflight.

Imagine the power of making upper atmospheric observations every day in the mesosphere, conducting space adaptation experiments on hundreds or thousands of test subjects, examining microgravity data from today's flight and closing the loop to perform better experiments next week rather than next year. Imagine the synergy of ISS experiments first-proof tested on suborbital vehicles for pennies on the dollar. Imagine the power of physics and chemistry classes, doctoral theses, and science television programming coming from space on a daily basis. Imagine your own REM applications. We believe they are as unlimited compared to our ideas of today, as today's applications of the personal computer were in the late pre-emergent PC days of the 1970s. We also believe that by 2019, REM applications of next-generation suborbital flight will be as obvious a game-changer as rocket research had become by 1957, barely a decade after the formation of the V-2 panel in 1946.

If you are interested in learning more about this burgeoning set of applications, or contributing new ideas and applications to it, consider coming to the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Boulder, Colo., Feb. 18, 2010, through Feb. 20, 2010; the meeting Web site can be found at http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/nsrc2010/.

This OpEd originally appeared in Space News and is reprinted here courtesy of the authors.

Alan Stern is the associate vice president for research and development at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). The members of the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group are: Steven Collicott, professor at Purdue University; Joshua Colwell, professor at the University of Central Florida; Daniel Durda, principal scientist in the department of space studies at SwRI; David Grinspoon, curator of astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Sciences; Richard Miles, professor at Princeton University; John Pojman, professor at Louisiana State University; Mark Shelhamer, professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School; Michael Summers, planetary scientist at George Mason University; and Erika Wagner, executive director of the Mars Gravity Biosatellite and X Prize Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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