NASA is readying to fly NASA personnel on future commercial suborbital spaceflights, for the first time, according to a NASA press release.
This comes on the heels of the first successful joint mission with commercial entity SpaceX in May — which saw the first U.S.-based launch of a NASA crew in nearly a decade.
This is significant because NASA hasn't carried out suborbital missions since the dawn of U.S. spaceflight, during Project Mercury and the X-15 hypersonic research program.
NASA to fly crewed suborbital commercial missions
NASA's Flight Opportunities program has seen successful results with emerging suborbital transportation services to fly research payloads into orbit for brief moments of microgravity time — crucial for cutting-edge scientific experiments.
Additionally, the program recently made a call for non-NASA researchers to propose missions accompanying their payloads into suborbital space.
The Suborbital Crew (SubC) office in NASA's Commercial Crew Program will build the infrastructure needed to fly NASA personnel on commercial suborbital space transportation systems. But for now, the agency office aims to perform a system qualification — or safety assessment — to help principal investigators, NASA astronauts, and other agency personnel leverage the return of suborbital capabilities.
Once the safety assessment is completed, NASA aims to buy seats on commercial suborbital space transportation systems for NASA crewed missions.
"We've seen how industry can develop innovative crew transportation systems that meet NASA's safety requirements and standards," said Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters Kathy Lueders. "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."
Suborbital NASA missions save money for science experiments
NASA expects commercial suborbital spaceflights will be more affordable, accessible, and available than missions to the International Space Station alone, and might give NASA more frequent human spaceflights, for testing and qualifying spaceflight hardware, human-focused microgravity research, and additional training for astronauts and other NASA personnel, according to the press release.
This is why the agency has developed an intensive and comprehensive training program for astronauts and astronaut candidates. Additionally, suborbital space access to crewed missions might offer more training opportunities for NASA astronauts, scientists, engineers, operators, and trainers.
"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 in the development of suborbital vehicles, but we can participate in the market as a buyer. The U.S. aerospace industry is proving again that it is technically and financially capable of developing safe, reliable, and cost-effective space systems."
NASA has come a long way since its early days of suborbital flight during the Mercury missions. And now that commercial interests have raised their ambitions to space — NASA wants to buy a seat.