Inside the Big Suborbital Research Tent

By Richard Mains, Posted 11/14/09

Big Flag Tent,  Source: NeoAvatara

Big Flag Tent, Source: NeoAvatara

I'm now providing support to a new NASA research program that's collaborating with the commercial suborbital vehicle providers who plan to transport personal spaceflight customers and/or their research payloads to altitudes up to about 100 km.  In the process, the vehicle and its contents will be exposed to several minutes of microgravity.  This emerging opportunity to research the novel environment inside and the unexplored environment outside the spacecraft in the upper atmosphere, is seen as a game-changer.  NASA is developing this program in support of its congressional commercial space utilization mandate to facilitate access to "Near-Space" on private sector vehicles by NASA-sponsored researchers, engineers, technologists, educators and students.  As stated in a recent program summary, "The goal of the Commercial ReUsable Suborbital Research Program is to facilitate regular, frequent and predictable access to the edge of space at a reasonable cost with easy recovery of intact payloads".   This is incredibly good news.  It can be viewed as a major milestone leading to the "Holy Grail" of space exploration, the much lower cost and frequent access to space.  Several of the Near-Space companies would like to eventually extend the reach of their reusable suborbital space planes to Earth orbit, no small feat.  That goal is foundational to the vision of ultimately creating a true space economy. 

I view my support for CRuSR as a "complement of interest"  to my role as Editor for the Commercial Space Gateway that advocates for emergence of the multi-stakeholder global commercial space market.  That surely includes funding of suborbital vehicle providers for the transport of research payloads and eventually researchers to Near-Space, as well as regular customers.  The NASA site for CRuSR provides background, status and objectives for the new Program.  .

What I want to spotlight here is the amazingly broad, multi-faceted scope of the emerging suborbital research community, and NASA's important involvement in its growth via the CRUSR Program.  I've been involved with NASA research programs for thirty years, but I have never seen an attempt to envision, let alone participate in, such a highly collaborative endeavor.  In many ways, to me, CRUSR seems as innovative for a government agency to undertake as transporting payloads and people to Near-Space is for the commercial space industry.  NASA's involvement with the international community in building the International Space Station is a contemporary legend.  As extraordinary as that has been, it has been mainly a grand collaboration between government entities, albeit one is Russia and another may be China. CRUSR is much broader than just government collaboration and will require all the bridge-building skills NASA and its collaborators can muster.  Luckily there are many who are eager to accept the challenge. 

The suborbital research community will include many stakeholders such as: NASA Ames Research Center (Level II Ofiice for CRuSR) and other NASA Centers; other government agencies; the emerging suborbital spaceflight industry now represented by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF); the Southwest Research Institute and its key suborbital research advocate, Alan Stern (former NASA); the CSF-sponsored Space Applications Research Group (SARG) that is spearheading recruitment of researchers across many discipline areas; several highly-experienced payload developers who can provide spacecraft integration services, and the emerging Spaceports, the "Teachers in Space" project and the vital space educator entities, space education foundations, and the thousands of associated classrooms across the nation.  This is going to be one big tent and CRuSR will need innovative ways to support its communications and collaborations from one end of it to the other.  That means, as we all know, leadership that includes the next generation.   



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