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NSRC 2023

VMS Eve, the carrier aircraft for Virgin Galactic's suborbital spaceplane, returned to Spaceport America in New Mexico last week as the company prepared to begin commercial operations in the second quarter. (credit: Virgin Galactic)

Suborbital spaceflight’s next chapter

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The last time the suborbital research field gathered in the Denver suburbs for the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) three years ago, the field seemed to be on the verge of a new era amid ominous shadows of the looming pandemic. At the meeting, officials with both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic said they were preparing to soon start flying people after years of anticipation, which meant that, soon, researchers could fly with their experiments: a goal of conference organizers since the first such meet a decade earlier (see “What is the future for commercial suborbital spaceflight?”, The Space Review, April 6, 2020).

“We are investigating that anomaly now, the cause of it,” Lai said. “I can’t talk about specific timelines or plans for when we will resolve that situation other than to say that we fully intend to be back in business as soon as we are ready.”

At last week’s NSRC, back at the same hotel but on the other side of a global pandemic, the field had both changed yet remained the same. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic had successfully flown their vehicles with people on board. Neither, though, was currently flying their vehicles: New Shepard remained sidelined after a launch anomaly nearly half a year ago, while Virgin Galactic was only now gearing up to return to flight after an extended maintenance period. And while NASA had, on one hand, issued awards to researchers to allow them to fly with experiments on suborbital vehicles, a program announced at the previous NSRC to fly NASA astronauts on them had changed.

Returning to flight

There was, among conference attendees, curiosity about the status of New Shepard. That vehicle had been launching on a regular cadence since its first crewed flight in July 2021 until an incident on a payload-only flight last September designated NS-23. On that flight, the capsule ignited its launch abort motor and accelerated away from its propulsion module about a minute after liftoff, landing safely under parachutes.

Blue Origin provided few additional details about the incident, or updates about the status of the investigation and plans to resume launches in subsequent months. That extended to the conference, where Gary Lai, chief architect for New Shepard at Blue Origin, said only that the investigation was still ongoing nearly six months later.

“We are investigating that anomaly now, the cause of it,” he said. “We will get to the bottom of it. I can’t talk about specific timelines or plans for when we will resolve that situation other than to say that we fully intend to be back in business as soon as we are ready.”

He noted that the capsule’s abort system worked as expected. “I can tell you with certainty that the acceleration environment that we experienced was exactly what we predicted. It was exactly as the astronauts were trained for,” he said.

Lai, who gave one of the first public presentations about New Shepard at the first NSRC in 2010 (see “Blue is a little less black”, The Space Review, February 22, 2010), also has flight experience with the vehicle: he went on the NS-20 mission nearly a year ago as a late substitution for actor Pete Davidson, who was invited on the flight only to bow out for unspecified conflicts.

NS-23 was the 12th flight of New Shepard that carried research payloads, either as a mission dedicated to research or as part of the vehicle’s flight test program. Lai said that Blue Origin was committed to continue flying payloads on New Shepard once the vehicle starts flying again.

However, he said the company’s focus would shift more to flying tourists when the vehicle returns to operations. “We expect that in the near future, the coming year, suborbital tourism will dominate our flights,” he said. The number of research flights would remain at “about a couple” per year but the number of tourist flights would sharply increase.

Blue Origin is looking at alternative ways of accommodating research payloads. That includes flying them on the vehicle’s propulsion module rather than the crew capsule, which he said would allow the company to fly them on both tourist and research flights. There would not be as much room on the propulsion module for payloads, but he said it would offer capabilities not possible today inside the capsule, such as exposing or even deploying experiments.

Another option is to conduct a reduced gravity flight, where the capsule is spun after separation to simulate lunar gravity. NASA is already planning one such flight through its Flight Opportunities program, tentatively scheduled for later in the year.

While the conference was ongoing, Virgin Galactic was taking its next steps towards resuming flights of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane. Last Monday, the company’s VMS Eve “mothership” aircraft (long known as WhiteKnightTwo, a name the company has quietly shelved) flew from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California to Spaceport America in New Mexico. There, it was reunited with the VSS Unity spaceplane to prepare for a series of test flights.

VMS Eve had been in Mojave since October 2021 for an extended maintenance period that included upgrades like a new pylon to which SpaceShipTwo is attached. “All this comprehensive work on Eve took longer than we originally planned,” Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, said in an earnings call last Tuesday.

VSS Unity will only be able to fly about once a month and even that cadence will take some time achieve, Colglazier warned, as the company worked on “shaking out the operation and learning how to turn the ship on a consistent basis.”

That work, he said, is now complete, and the Virgin Galactic is preparing for tests flights, including one powered suborbital flight with company personnel on board—the first flight under rocket power for VSS Unity since the July 2021 flight that took Richard Branson and others to space. Assuming those flights go well, he said, “we expect to commence commercial service in Q2.”

The first commercial flight will be a research one for the Italian Air Force under a contract signed in 2019. Sirisha Bandla, vice president for government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, said at NSRC that three Italian mission specialists will go on the flight, performing a range of experiments that include those that they wear as well as others they operate; still others will operate autonomously.

“They’ve really taken advantage of the entire mission and are doing quite a few different things,” said Bandla, who flew on the July 2021 SpaceShipTwo flight and conducted research. “Every researcher we work with is really good at maximizing every second they have of that three minutes of microgravity.”

Virgin Galactic plans to fly researchers on a regular basis, but as with Blue Origin its flights will be dominated by tourists: Colglazier said in the earnings call that the company had reserved 100 of its first 1,000 seats for research. However, VSS Unity will only be able to fly about once a month, with four people on board, and even that cadence will take some time achieve, he warned, as the company worked on “shaking out the operation and learning how to turn the ship on a consistent basis.”

A second vehicle, VSS Imagine, remained on hold as the company focused on getting Unity flying again and gearing up work on the next-generation “Delta-class” spaceplanes and new mothership planes. Only when both efforts were “well in hand,” he said, would the company “come pick up Imagine and see where we want to go.”

Flying researchers, not astronauts

The previous NSRC in 2020 took place shortly after NASA announced it would allow researchers to fly with payloads that the agency funded through the Flight Opportunities program. Since then, NASA has selected two such human-tended experiments, although neither person has yet to fly.

That NASA program though, limited such flights to academic or other private researchers: NASA civil servants or contractors could not fly through Flight Opportunities. But at the 2020 conference, then-NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the agency would start a new effort to certify commercial suborbital vehicles so that NASA personnel, including astronauts, could fly on them.

That led to an effort called Suborbital Crew, or SubC, within the Commercial Crew program. The goal at the time was to come up with a way to certify suborbital vehicles to allow them to carry NASA personnel.

However, both the goal of SubC, and the means of achieving it, have changed. “Our name is a little bit of a misnomer these days,” said Chris Gerace, NASA SubC manager, at the conference. “One tends to think this is about flying our NASA crew in space. It’s much broader than that.”

For one, NASA is no longer considering flying astronauts on suborbital vehicles. “When they looked at their training needs, they’ve been flying astronauts to space for decades without any suborbital pre-training, so they felt that their training approach was sufficient as is,” he said of the agency’s astronaut office.

“Flying NASA civil servants is really not the primary objective,” Gerace said of SubC. “It’s really this industry, human spaceflight, wherever it takes place, and furthering that and ensuring that it is both viable and safe.”
One particular issue, he said, was the use, or lack thereof, of pressure suits. “The astronaut corps flies in pressure suits. Any kind of training they have they really want to have in pressure suits. They felt these vehicles, which did not incorporate pressure suits, did not fit those needs.”

Instead, the focus of SubC is on flying NASA civil servants, like researchers wanting to conduct experiments. Gerace said that NASA, rather than pursue a formal certification of those vehicles, NASA will instead adopt a “safety case” approach, here companies explain in detail why their vehicles are safe and NASA works to confirm that.

“It’s up to them to be able to describe why they’re safe, and what we’re doing within SubC, to a large extent, is a validation of that claim,” he said. “NASA brings in its experts and validates that case.”

NASA is working with Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic already on “deep dives” into aspects of their vehicles, such as New Shepard’s abort system and SpaceShipTwo’s propulsion. That work will continue through the end of the year and into early 2024, he said, but didn’t estimate when NASA would complete the safety case analysis.

He added that SubC has also been supporting Blue Origin in the NS-23 anomaly investigation. “There is nothing like a significant anomaly to exercise and challenge the culture of an organization,” he said. In the case of Blue Origin, “they have a phenomenal safety culture.”

Gerace argued thar SubC was more than about allowing NASA civil servants to fly on commercial suborbital vehicles but instead supporting the broader commercial human spaceflight industry by providing agency support and even an imprimatur. “Flying NASA civil servants is really not the primary objective,” he said. “It’s really this industry, human spaceflight, wherever it takes place, and furthering that and ensuring that it is both viable and safe.”

Many of those who attended NSRC, and have done so in preceding years, have been eagerly awaiting a time when suborbital spaceflight would be viable and safe for both their payloads and, often, themselves. In the next year or so, we should have a better idea if that time has finally arrived.

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