Suborbital’s ascending trajectory
Making suborbital happen
While the endorsements and messages of support from state and federal government agencies and officials are a key step towards developing commercial suborbital space transportation, the nascent industry faces a number of critical hurdles to overcome, ranging from the technical challenges of vehicles themselves to the financial requires to develop those vehicles to the regulatory issues involved with manned suborbital spaceflight.
In an effort to deal with some of those concerns, the newly-formed Suborbital Institute visited the offices of over two dozen members of Congress during a one-day event on February 10—wryly dubbed “Love & Rockets” because of the event’s proximity to Valentine’s Day and the strong interest the organization’s members have in suborbital spaceflight. The goal of the Suborbital Institute’s first Congressional briefing was to raise awareness among members of Congress and their staffs about the efforts of a number of entrepreneurial companies to develop reusable vehicles capable of suborbital spaceflight and the regulatory hurdles that lie in the path of these firms.
Some of those regulatory concerns are already being addressed by the FAA. Kelvin Coleman, special assistant for programs and planning with FAA/AST, said that suborbital flight falls “right near the line of aviation operations.” This makes it unclear whether such vehicles should be regulated like launch vehicles or like high-performance aircraft. “We at FAA are challenged to figure out where that line is,” Coleman said.
When XCOR Aerospace, a California company developing a suborbital RLV, conducted flight tests of its EZ Rocket rocket-powered airplane, it sought and obtained an experimental aircraft license from the FAA because it provided more flexibility than a launch license, as each flight could theoretically require obtaining a separate license. AST is aware of those concerns, Coleman said, and has recently published an advisory circular explaining how the current rules could be used by XCOR and other companies to fly test regimes without getting a separate launch license for each flight.
Nonetheless, one of the key talking points the Suborbital Institute made for its day on the Hill was to promote a “flexible model of regulation” that allows for the type of flexibility a young industry like suborbital spaceflight needs. Pat Bahn, founder and CEO of TGV Rockets and a founder of the Suborbital Institute, said that he’s “70 percent happy” with what the FAA has done to date, adding that “their hearts are in the right place and they’re trying very hard.”
Besides FAA regulation, another key point for the Suborbital Institute is insurance. The current insurance environment isn’t suitable for suborbital RLVs, as launch insurance was designed for expendable vehicles and commercial aviation insurance is unwilling to provide enough insurance to cover the maximum probable loss determined by the FAA. The Institute believes the federal government should step in to help fill the gap between what is required and what is currently offered. The Institute also advocates the creation of multiple spaceports around the country for use by suborbital RLVs, rather than a single national spaceport like Cape Canaveral.
That last point is welcomed by a number of states that, in the late 1990s, offered to establish spaceports for Lockheed Martin’s VentureStar, a proposed single-stage to orbit RLV that originally was to be a scaled-up version of the X-33 experimental vehicle. However, VentureStar quietly faded away when the X-33 was canceled in 2001, leaving states from Texas to South Dakota in the lurch. Many of these states are inland, and without orbital or suborbital RLVs have virtually no chance of developing spaceports.
In an effort to jointly promote these potential new spaceports, a number of states formed the National Coalition of Spaceport States (NCSS) in 2001. The NCSS, with 15 states as members, is now eagerly promoting suborbital spaceflight as an untapped engine of economic growth. “We have to say that space can fuel the economy,” said NCSS chairman Tim Huddleston of Alabama during the AST conference. Oklahoma—Mary Fallin’s home state—is one of states in the forefront of promoting suborbital spaceflight from its Burns Flat spaceport, in large part because of its perceived economic benefits.
Suborbital as stepping stone
Besides opening new markets, the other key benefit of suborbital RLVs is that they could serve as the basis for developing larger orbital RLVs. Huddleston calls suborbital vehicles “the first logical step” towards routine, inexpensive commercial space transportation. Noting the development of suborbital rocket planes like the X-15 some four decades ago, he noted that “if we had continued this, we would likely have today a space access capability that is cheap and reliable.”
Those opinions are echoed within government. “Suborbital vehicles offer an incremental approach that will ultimately lead to the development of commercial orbital reusable launch vehicles,” said Paula Trimble, an analyst with the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commercialization, during a breakfast meeting that preceded the Suborbital Institute’s lobbying day. “In fact, they are the continuation of an incremental approach that started with the development of the Wright Flyer in 1903.”
For the time being, however, those involved with commercial suborbital RLV efforts are satisfied with simply developing suborbital vehicles to serve those markets. For Bahn, who started TGV Rockets several years ago as a suborbital company when most entrepreneurial efforts were focused on orbital RLVs, the growth in interest in suborbital vehicles has been something of a vindication. “I’ve been out in the wilderness for a while,” he said, “and now I’ve found that it’s turned into a minor suburb.”