NASA Selects New Technologies to Flight Test on Parabolic Aircraft, Balloons & Suborbital Rockets

EDWARDS, Calif. (NASA PR) — NASA has selected nine space technologies to test on low-gravity-simulating aircraft, high-altitude balloons or suborbital rockets. The opportunity to fly on these vehicles helps advance technologies closer to practical use by taking them from a laboratory environment to a real-world environment. The selections were made by NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which conducts a competition approximately twice per year for funding to fly payloads using flight providers selected by the proposers. These space technologies are being tested using relatively low-cost flights that simulate spaceflight or just reach the “edge” of space.

“The Flight Opportunities program is a great resource for technology developers to be able to test their ideas in the space environment,” said Stephan Ord, the program technology manager for NASA’s Flight Opportunities program. “Suborbital flight costs are relatively cheap compared to orbital costs, so often researchers will be able to discover potential problems with their hardware prior to investing in a full orbital flight.”

Two topics were included in this call for research. Under the first topic, which requested demonstration of space technology payloads, NASA selected seven proposals:

  • Gravity Effects on Flow Boiling Heat Transfer Using Temperature Sensitive Paints in Preparation for an ISS Flight Experiment, Jungho Kim, principal investigator, University of Maryland, College Park. This payload will collect data on boiling flows using parabolic flights. The data will help develop more accurate models for boiling flow in microgravity, which will be used to help design the next generation of heat exchangers for space use. Flight provider: Zero-G Corp.
  • Demonstration of Optimal Chilldown Methods for Cryogenic Propellant Tanks in Reduced Gravity, Jacob Chung, principal investigator, University of Florida, Gainesville. Tank chilldown is a necessary step when performing tank-to-tank cryogenic propellant transfer, needed for fuel depots or deep-space human missions. This payload has the potential of reducing the amount of fuel used for chilling the tanks. Flight provider: Zero-G Corp.
  • EMPANADA: Ejecta-Minimizing Protocols for Applications Needing Anchoring or Digging on Asteroids, Karen Daniels, principal investigator, North Carolina State University, Raleigh. The EMPANADA payload explores new ways of penetrating soil in microgravity by using flexible probes inspired by plant roots driven at very slow speed. This new technology could be used in asteroid mining or anchoring to a low-gravity object. Flight provider: Zero-G Corp.
  • Draper Multi-Environment Navigator High Altitude Balloon Campaign. Brett Streetman, principal investigator, Charles Stark Draper Laboratory Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts.
    This is a set of sensors packaged with a computer to process data and provide navigation data for a vehicle. This self-contained unit provides autonomous navigation capability that could be used for planetary landing, relative navigation and moving about the surface of a planetary body. Flight provider: World View Enterprises
  • Cryogenic Gauging Technology Geometry Development. Steven Collicott, principal investigator, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. The radio frequency mass gauging technique is one of the main candidate technologies to provide a rapid, repeatable and accurate gauging method for cryogenic propellant tanks in weightlessness. This payload experiment will specifically help determine the impact of probe geometry on the performance of the system. Flight provider: Blue Origin
  • Microgravity Propellant Gauging Using Modal Analysis: Phase III. Kevin Crosby, principal investigator, Carthage College, Kenosha, Wisconsin. Measuring the amount of propellant left in a tank in low-gravity can be complex and often requires firing rocket engines to move the fuel to the end of the tank, which costs extra fuel. This payload will optimize a simple low-cost gauging method using vibration response to estimate the tank fill level. Flight providers: Zero-G Corp and Blue Origin
  • LISA-T Microgravity Deployment Demonstration. Greg Laue, principal investigator, ManTech International Corporation, Huntsville, Alabama. This experiment is a thin-film solar array and antenna that is deployed from an extremely compact volume and is very lightweight. It will greatly increase the ability to generate power in small satellites such as CubeSats, advancing their capabilities. Flight provider: Zero-G Corp.

Under the second topic, demonstration of vehicle capability enhancements and onboard research facilities for payload accommodation, NASA selected two proposals:

  • JANUS 3.0: Enabling Game Changing External Environment Payload Accommodation on Suborbital Reusable Launch Vehicles. H. Todd Smith, principal investigator, Johns Hopkins University, Laurel, Maryland. This is a platform mounted on the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket which holds small payloads and exposes them to the space environment. It will allow payloads to perform testing and sampling in the atmosphere at an altitude of 49.6-62 miles (80-100 kilometers), a capability that is not currently available. Flight provider: Blue Origin
  • Stratospheric and Suborbital Flight Experiments and Equipment. Elizabeth Kennick, principal investigator, Teachers In Space, Inc., New York. The proposer has developed a standardized 3-D printed housing fitted with a customizable processor, data storage, sensors and batteries for flying payloads. This accommodation could provide a future platform for teachers and students to test their experiments in space. Flight provider: Blue Origin

Awards will be made for payload integration and flight costs, as well as limited payload development costs. These investments take technologies from the laboratory to a relevant flight environment, facilitate technology maturation, validate feasibility and reduce technical risks and enable infusion of key space technologies into multiple future space missions.

The Flight Opportunities program is funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington and managed at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, manages the solicitation and selection of technologies to be tested and demonstrated on commercial flight vehicles.

For more information on NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, visit:

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Good for Prof. Steven Collicott keeping after the suborbital research flights – I remember his name as one of the earliest payloads on Armadillo vehicles.

  • Half of those companies were created out of prizes (even UP traces back to the CATS Prize effort). The other half are from “internet billionaires”. Many of those companies have been at this for quite some time, and are primarily using gov’t contract.

    What is the moral of the story? Space is still hard? (I don’t want to take away ANYTHING from the hard working men and women that keep those companies going.) There hasn’t been a breakout success among that group though, even if you lumped in Garvey (Vector). What are we missing?

  • ThomasLMatula

    No, it’s when you are in an industry used to looking for government money you will continue to look for government money. I note that none of the firms, other than SpaceX and Blue Origin, have a real marketing department focused on doing the missionary work needed to create non-government markets. Instead they mostly have a field of dreams approach – “build it and they will come” which explains their dependence on government funding.

  • Michael Halpern

    And SpaceX and Blue Origin have also recieved quite a bit of government money, I mean with SpaceX they were almost dry when they launched that 4th Falcon 1, that success did secure them some contract money, but they also got quite a bit from NASA, one of the big differences in what SpaceX does verses everyone else, is that when they test non-mission critical components, such as first stage landing, they make money off of those missions, SpaceX had an offer for the first FH launch they turned it down in favor of a “silly” demonstration payload, but that is largely because it is a higher risk mission than usual, as it is the first time the full system is going to operate together, as there isn’t a test facility that can handle all 27 first stage engines at once, all parts have been tested independently, and the 2 side boosters are flight proven F9 cores, the central core is brand new, but when they were figuring out how to land the F9, they reserved some fuel for the landing tests, that landing fuel also can provide significant additional margin in an engine out scenario should it be needed, which besides low price helps make the f9 an attractive launch vehicle, which is something SpaceX has emphasized and has even used once, first stage landing is always a secondary objective, that kind of assurance to that degree doesn’t happen with other launch vehicles, as occasional mission failures are considered part of the nature of the industry.

    Blue Origin in addition to building their own rockets are also working on providing engines to other launch service providers and possibly other buyers of rocket engines, which will help set them apart from SpaceX in the medium term. They seem to be setting themselves up to be a secondary American launch service provider, but perhaps a primary global rocket engine provider (to US and Allies), Now while there is little doubt that the BE-4 will likely be less powerful than the full uprated final iteration of Raptor, it will likely start more powerful and remain competitive in thrust to SpaceX’s Raptor engine, and SpaceX isn’t going to be selling engines, at least not new engines, they may sell left over Merlin 1Ds as they phase out F9/H but not as a primary source of income.

    Much of the rest of the New Space market is niche targeting towards dedicated small sat launchers, or almost entirely space tourism, sure BO is targeting space tourism as well, and to an extent SX, but smallsats can be delivered to orbit by any orbital launcher, either as a secondary payload in small numbers, or in far larger numbers as the primary payload, and so long as the payload can be expected to reach target orbit, the number smallsat operators care most about is cost/kg, so SpaceX is attractive to smallsats as well.

    SpaceX and Blue Origin have real plans to move forward with their technology, slightly different market approaches, and they both need each-other or someone like the other for their founders’ dreams to work, which is possibly part of why Blue Origin is taking the approach they are, neither Musk or Bezos can allow a new launch monopoly to form if they want to ensure lower cost access to space.

    Having said that, that is only one side of the New Space industry, there is also the companies working on satelites, spacecraft and stations as well as space viable equipment that have mainly just been waiting for the launch industry to make their products viable and many of them have been doing a pretty good job marketing, its just that the launch market isn’t quite there yet for many of them, except for small sats.

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Would you say that VG is also doing the work to create markets? Isn’t that what Branson’s visit to Saudi Arabia was about?

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, he has in the area of space tourism. But that is a market no one is able to serve yet.

    You need short term markets that bring revenue now or you will end up like XCOR. Their EZ-Rocket and Rocket Racer had the potential to create such markets by going on the Air Show circuit, but they ignored that opportunity.

    Saudi Arabia is an investor, not a customer. They expect a return on their investment.

    The communication satellite firms that Sir Richard and Elno Musk are working are potential markets for their launch services if they are able to close their business plans, but the comsat industry has been a market for a while and these firms need to find other markets for their launch systems.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, but those are simply traditional launch markets they will quickly saturate. They will also quickly saturate the government launch market. Those other firms are just vendors, they will need primary (consumer) markets for the business models to be viable.

    In terms of human space flight NASA only has 44 active astronauts and it takes them about 2-3 years to train for a mission, so that will only produce a couple of crewed Dragon missions a year at most, and they will be divided between Dragon and the CST-100. In terms of the BFR that would leave about 150 seats empty even if every one flew on the same flight.

    So the traditional markets will not give them the flight rate to reach the economies of scale their systems are designed for. It’s what I call the Great Eastern problem.

    Also unlike SpaceX, Blue Origin doesn’t need those third party markets. Those markets are nice and its easy money to pick up, but Jeff Bezos has repeatedly stated he wants to build factories in space. New Glenn and New Armstrong are his means of getting to space to do so. So looking at Blue Origins from a launch market prospective is like analyzing a logging company from the prospective of the railroad business just because they were building a railroad to transport their timber out of the forest. The ROI for the logging railroad won’t be the hand full of hunters/trappers it hauls around the woods, but the logging interest it was designed to serve.

  • Michael Halpern

    The other major issue is space debris remediation, BFR somewhat addresses it, but possibly the best route for small to medium junk is to develop the technology as anti satellite weapons, and have it deployed via ride-sharing, then we can have it be a helpful arms race for being able to remove satellites of all sizes without putting your own space infrastructure at risk, the current methodology of such weapons is to blow up the target satellite, which has the risk of becoming a wmd for space by accident