NASA’s Flight Opportunities Partnerships

A drone released from a high-altitude balloon carried a payload to evaluate how the equipment could help the FAA detect and track commercial spacecraft entering the National Air Space, (NAS) as it descends from space. (Image Credit: NASA)

Helping to mature space technology while bolstering the commercial space industry.

EDWARDS, Calif. (NASA PR) — One of the goals of NASA’s Flight Opportunities program is a thriving private-sector space industry that supports innovative new technologies of interest to NASA. Such a marketplace promises to advance the Agency’s exploration goals and provide a wellspring from which NASA can draw resources and expertise, while providing them, in turn, to industry.

“We’re encouraging an industry that has potential to lower the cost and increase the speed of access to space,” says Christopher Baker, program executive for Flight Opportunities. “Additionally, we help validate technologies before they go on to applications in Earth orbit or deep space.”

Through the program, space researchers can test their experiments in suborbital space or space-like environments before demonstrating them on the International Space Station, on spacecraft in orbit around Earth, or on missions headed to the moon and Mars — options that are typically available only to more mature technologies.

Flight Opportunities works through a number of contracts with commercial flight providers, linking NASA and other Government researchers with an appropriate flight platform. The program also awards grants to select non-Government researchers, enabling them to work with an appropriate flight provider of their choice.

The platforms available include suborbital reusable launch vehicles, vertical-takeoff and vertical-landing rockets, parabolic aircraft, and high-altitude balloons—all of which enable researchers to demonstrate their technologies in space-like conditions.

Supporting Technology Development

Researchers who are not working at NASA or another Government agency — for instance, those affiliated with a university, nonprofit, or private company—can compete for Flight Opportunities awards that are evaluated, in part, on how they address NASA’s technology goals.

“We look at how the technologies contribute to space exploration and utilization,” Baker says.

Proposals are evaluated by NASA technical review panels that determine how applicable the technologies are and how well the researchers have laid out their plans. NASA also considers how high of a priority the projects are to the space agency’s various mission directorates and any other similar or related investments—what the program’s technology manager Steve Ord describes as “programmatic factors.”

“There’s a peer review process that considers the soundness of the technology and the experimental plan, and then a final review at NASA Headquarters that incorporates consideration of programmatic goals,” says Ord. “That’s how we make sure we make solid, competitive and impactful selections.”

Selected projects receive money for researchers to arrange their own flights with the flight provider of their choice, though Flight Opportunities technical personnel are available to guide them through the process, if desired.

Historically, the grants award as much as $275,000, up to $250,000 of which can go toward flights. As much as $25,000 can go toward other costs, such as travel, labor or materials to build flight hardware. As new capabilities come online, NASA is looking to increase these values to allow even more complex experiments.

The money is awarded through the Space Technology Research, Development, Demonstration, and Infusion (SpaceTech-REDDI) solicitation. Proposals are solicited annually through the NASA Solicitation and Proposal Integrated Review and evaluation system known as NSPIRES.

Facilitating Government Research

Testing the SwRI Solar Instrument Pointing Platform (SSIPP) is a miniaturized solar observatory that has been developed to fit the payload space for multiple piloted and autonomous suborbital craft. (Image Credit: World View)

Flight Opportunities also supports researchers working within NASA and other government agencies, by facilitating technology demonstrations that would benefit from a suborbital, parabolic or high-altitude balloon flight.

For flights on suborbital reusable launch vehicles, the program has contracted with companies that have included Blue Origin, UP Aerospace and Virgin Galactic. In addition, Masten Space Systems has provided the program with vertical takeoff, vertical landing flights. High-altitude balloon services are provided by Aerostar International (Raven Aerostar) and World View Enterprises.

Government researchers work closely with Flight Opportunities campaign managers, who arrange for the payloads to fly with one of these carriers, putting multiple payloads on the same flight when possible.

“For internal payloads, the campaign manager serves as the technical liaison between the payload reps and the flight providers,” says Paul De León, a campaign manager who arranges Government researchers’ flights with World View, NSC, and UP Aerospace.

“It’s also part of my job to make sure that the technologies that are flying together are compatible with each other and with the flight vehicle’s capabilities,” he says. “There might be one payload that needs a quiet microgravity environment, and there might be another one that is shaking—those would not be compatible, so we would manifest them on different flights.”

Parabolic flight-testing activity monitoring system for flight surgeons, exercise specialists, and crew members to monitor the mechanical stimulus delivered to the lower extremity in a pre-emptive approach to bone health maintenance in space. (Credit: NASA / Bill Stafford)

Campaign managers might also help facilitate collaboration between researchers with related payloads, sometimes even connecting internal NASA researchers with non-Government SpaceTech-REDDI grantees working on similar technology.

Aiding Small Launch Vehicle Technology Development

Beginning in FY 2016, NASA also invested in technologies to advance commercial small launch vehicle capabilities with an accompanying funding increase in the Flight Opportunities program. The program used two funding mechanisms that directly targeted industry and focused on public-private partnerships: the Tipping Point and Announcement of Collaborative Opportunity (ACO) solicitations.

Today—in part due to the success of these efforts—suborbital flight providers are on the verge of a significant leap forward, and payloads are beginning to fly from multiple providers.

Tipping Point awards went to industry-developed technologies that could help NASA meet its own goals, with an eye toward future missions, while also addressing private sector challenges.

The program looked for technologies that appeared poised to bolster commercial space activity and that were likely at a “tipping point,” meaning investments in them could significantly improve their chances of getting to market — where NASA could go shopping for them in the future.

Tipping Point awards are paid through firm-fixed-price contracts to U.S. companies that match at least 25 percent of the grant.

NASA’s ACO awards, meanwhile, provide access to NASA technical expertise and test facilities, as well as hardware and software, to help companies mature space vehicles or related systems.

Offering NASA resources to help companies develop their technologies—for instance, additive manufacturing of a rocket engine or an affordable guidance navigation system—shortens the development cycle, enabling companies to achieve orbital launch capabilities faster.

Given the success in these investments, Flight Opportunities has shifted its focus to increasing funding for payload integration and flights in order to continue its work in supporting and advancing the commercial flight market.