NASA Throws Cash at Suborbital Flight, Piggybacking on Space Tourism

Virgin Galactic

Sir Richard Branson, you may want to pay attention here. NASA's got another proposals request out, for future space tech investigations—but this time it looks like the agency's getting wise to the rise of the commercial space biz, and its growing opportunities to access suborbital zones.

NASA's previous solicitations for proposals have covered advanced aerospace and space-bound technologies, as well as cheap, quiet future commercial jets. The latest proposal, from the Flight Opportunities Program under the Office of the Chief Technologist, is a little different: It's all about getting technology and test experiments into microgravity on the cheap, by shooting them into sub-orbital space at about 60 miles up rather than into orbit.

The Flight Opportunities program is specifically designed to boost the development of the new commercial space business in the U.S., which is being led by consumer-carrying companies such as Virgin Galactic and bigger business efforts like SpaceX. Virgin, along with a number of still rather mysterious companies, like Jeff Bezo's Blue Origin, is aiming at flying paying passengers into suborbital space inside a handful of years—and it seems this new NASA proposal is aimed squarely at the spacecraft of these companies.

The benefits of having frequent, reliable, low-cost access to microgravity via these third parties are obvious for NASA—it can test and re-test various technological tricks and fixes on a much more frequent and cheap basis than having to launch its own expensive sounding rockets. The quick turnaround times between commercial flights could even allow for near real-time fixes and adjustments to be made.

As part of the new proposal, then, NASA is also requesting data from commercial suborbital flight companies about integrating experimental payloads into their flight profiles, and NASA's Chief Technologist Bobby Braun even mentions the matter during the announcement: These flights will allow researchers to "test their technologies in a range of microgravity environments" and will also be able to "share their data with NASA" so the agency can use it "when planning future missions." That idea alone will carry cachet for some companies or experimenters that are keen to submit proposals.

If we're reading the sub-orbital tea leaves correctly: With NASA swiftly embracing the new space business environment, it is acting to maximize its future potential by leveraging the technology of new commercial partners and competitors.

To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

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