NASA gets set to put astronauts on Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic suborbital flights
Beth Moses, chief astronaut trainer at Virgin Galactic, looks out of the window of the company's VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane during a suborbital space flight in February 2019. (Virgin Galactic Photo)
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced today that astronauts will soon be approved for suborbital spaceflight aboard the commercial rocket ships being tested by Virgin Galactic and the Blue Origin space project by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
"NASA is developing the process for flying astronauts on commercial suborbital spacecraft," said Bridenstine in a tweet. "Whether suborbital, orbital or in space, NASA will use our country's innovative commercial capabilities."
Bridenstine said the details would be made available in a request for information to be released next week. Efforts to obtain more information from NASA headquarters were not immediately successful.
In recent years, NASA has funded high-cost flights for scientific payloads on commercial suborbital spacecraft and balloons as part of its flight opportunities program. Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft and Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane have received multi-million dollar contracts through this program.
Neither of these spaceships have been released to accept paying passengers, but in January NASA announced that it was seeking suborbital space science for information about procedures that guest researchers could use to accompany their payloads on space flights.
NASA officials raised the issue again at space conferences in February and March. At the time, there were concerns that astronauts or other NASA employees could fly on suborbital spacecraft due to possible liability issues, but Bridenstine said he wanted to find a way to involve astronauts.
Today's tweet suggests that NASA has found a way.
The idea that NASA funds space travel for researchers and astronauts goes back more than a decade. Lori Garver, who served as NASA's deputy administrator during the Obama administration, said in a series of tweets today that such a plan had already been drawn up in 2013. "But when I announced it, the status quo astronauts lifted it."
"They mainly used the" safety "argument," Garver tweeted. "I said that a change in the policy was to incentivize the pump and people would not fly until the vehicles were certified, etc. Back then everything that was not developed by the government (including the Russian government) was suspicious , owned and operated. ”
When it comes to flying people commercially, suborbital space travel is on a different track than orbital space travel.
In orbit, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley made history last month when they flew to the International Space Station in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
On the suborbital route, Virgin Galactic twice sent its VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane past the 50 mile mark and minted a total of five commercial astronauts. Blue Origin has now subjected its New Shepard vehicle to 12 flight tests.
Nearly 700 people have spent $ 250,000 each on VSS Unity suborbital space travel, and these commercial flights could begin this year at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Blue Origin's goal was to fly people on test flights this year, but it's not clear how the coronavirus pandemic will affect this schedule. The company has not yet taken reservations. Although Blue Origin hasn't set its ticket price, CEO Bob Smith said the first tickets would cost "hundreds of thousands of dollars".
Both flight profiles offer rocket-driven impacts with high G-forces and a few minutes of weightlessness at the start of the journey. This is not enough for a typical space station experiment, but it is enough to enable short-term zero-G experiments, first attempts with space hardware and a foretaste of the space experience.
Today the executives of both companies welcomed Bridenstine's tweet.
"This is great news," said George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic Holdings, in a tweet. “NASA catalyzes innovations across a range of programs and goals and points the way to a positive future in space. We look forward to working with the agency to advance this exciting ability to fly NASA astronauts. "
Clay Mowry, vice president of sales, marketing and customer experience at Blue Origin, was far more concise. He tweeted a single word: "Yes," followed by a rocket emoji and three astronaut emojis.
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