NSRC Day 2 Summary

SNC technicians inspect the Dream Chaser ETA. (Credit: SNC)
SNC technicians inspect the Dream Chaser ETA. (Credit: SNC)

The second day of the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference took place in Colorado on Friday. Although I wasn’t able to attend, I have compiled highlights via Twitter posts. (You can follow along with hashtag #nsrc2016.)

Below is a summary of updates that cover Sierra Nevada Corporation, Cecil Airport, Spaceport Colorado, FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation, World View Enterprises, NASA Flight Opportunities Program.

There was a presentation by Charles Walker, who was the first person to perform commercial experiments in space as a payload specialist on three space shuttle missions.

A separate panel discussion on human-tended space research reached the unsurprising consensus that government should lift its ban on sending scientists into space with their experiments.

Sierra Nevada Corporation

John Olson
Vice President of Space Exploration Systems

  • Inaugural Dream Chaser cargo flight to ISS scheduled for between October 2019 and April 2020
  • Two Dream Chasers to fly total of 30 times over 10 years
  • NASA has reserved a minimum of 6 flights under CRS-2 contract
  • Commercial missions planned for 2020-2021 will carry experiments arranged by NanoRacks
  • Initial flights on United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V and later ULA’s successor Vulcan launch vehicle
  • Dream Chaser could be launched on Japan’s H-3 and Europe’s Ariane 6 boosters
  • Working with six airports and spaceports as locations to land

Cecil Airport

Todd Lindner
Administrator of Planning and Development
Jacksonville Aviation Authority

  • Obtaining spaceport license for Cecil Airport was not easy given many people with different agendas
  • Working with Generation Orbit, a company developing an air-launched smallsat launcher, and a couple of other launch providers whose names were not mentioned
  • Negotiating with Sierra Nevada Corporation for landing Dream Chaser vehicles at the airport
  • Cecil Field has to deal with protecting endangered gopher tortoises

Spaceport Colorado

David Ruppel
Front Range Airport

  • Submitted spaceport license to FAA in January, expect to receive license in late summer
  • Close proximity to Denver International Airport created challenges for obtaining spaceport license that had to be worked out with FAA
  • Proximity of airport and spaceport serves as model for integrating air and space traffic
  • Proximity to Denver International and access to the state’s large economy are reasons for companies to use Spaceport Colorado
  • Spaceport can only handle horizontally launch space vehicles
  • XCOR’s decision to suspend work on the Lynx suborbital space plane, which takes off from a runway, was an “unfortunate” setback

FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation

George Nield
Associate Administrator

  • FAA has been receiving request to evaluate and license exciting non-traditional spaced projects
  • High-performance jet operators want t o provide advanced spaceflight training
  • Expected boost in FY 2017 budget will allow FAA AST to hire additional staff to deal with increased workloads
  • Although the risk of orbital debris is better understood, nobody’s done much to address the problem

World View Enterprises

Alan Stern
Chief Scientist

  • Balloons have a lot of advantages for commercial and scientific research and education
  • So much demand for research using our balloons that we haven’t taken the human-rated vehicle past preliminary design review
  • Flying vehicle without crew will make later human flights safer
  • 3-letter government agencies that he can’t name are interested in using World View’s capabilities

NASA Flight Opportunities Program

Robert Yang
Program Executive

  • Made in Space, which has a 3-D printer in the space station, is a Flight Opportunities Program success story — used parabolic flights to develop zero gravity printer
  • Program plans external call for payloads twice a year to receive more proposals

Commercial Research

Charles Walker
First Private Commercial AstronautPayload Specialist, Space Shuttle

  • Conduct detailed planned and dry runs before flying to make sure experiments in space go well
  • Even with four minutes of microgravity time on suborbital flights there will be investigations that are best performed with a researcher tending the experiment
  • He was an outsider for three shuttle flights, so he ended up preparing most of the crew meals

Panel: Human-Tended Research

Chair: Dr. C. Marsh Cuttino, Orbital Medicine Inc.
Dr. Dan Durda – Southwest Research Institute
Dr. Robert Ferl – University of Florida
Dr. Mackenzie Lystrup – Ball Aerospace
Dr. H. Todd Smith – JHU/APL
Mr. Charlie Walker – (Retired Commercial Astronaut)

Panelists really want to accompany their experiments into space because:

  • rockets need people
  • experiments need people
  • people can communicate their work better than machines
  • people are more interested in seeing other people fly than an automated experiment
  • space should be treated as an extension of a lab environment or field work
  • it can be time consuming and cost prohibitive to automate certain experiments
  • the federal government funds researchers to go into risky environments such as the depths of the oceans, poisonous caves and the polar regions
  • flying on suborbital vehicles is exactly the same and deserves federal support for sending scientists aloft.

Editor’s Note: I’m going to take issue with this last claim. Here’s why:

It’s one thing to send marine biologists into the depths of the oceans. Deep sea submersibles are a proven technology; they have been in use for decades. We know what their safety record is, and we can properly gauge the risks involved. Same thing with polar exploration.

Commercial suborbital spaceflight is a whole new ballgame. Other than three flight tests of a now retired spacecraft conducted 12 years ago, we have no data for measuring risks involving human suborbital missions. SpaceShipOne never carried passengers. The X-15 flights were conducted 50 years ago.

There are no mandatory safety standards for suborbital vehicles; this was by industry demand. The FAA’s main role is to try to ensure that nobody gets hurt when these things crash. Such an incident was narrowly avoided in the SpaceShipTwo crash.

You have an industry with no track record that is exempt from any government safety regulations. You can’t then turn around and ask the government to fund flights based on the premise that they’re not any more dangerous than other funded research. You can’t have it both ways.

The industry needs to go out and fly vehicles with people in them. To space. Repeatedly. Safely. Go out and prove you can do all this stuff you’ve been promising to do for the last dozen years. If you prove yourselves, then the government will change its policy.