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Scientists go suborbital

NASA scientists work on an experiment flown on a zero-G airplane flight. Suborbital craft could open up a new frontier.

The killer app for private spaceflight, at least once the millionaires and celebrities have had their turn, may well be scientific research.

"You spark this industry with tourists, but I predict in the next decade the research market is going to be bigger than the tourist market," says Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Colorado-based Southwest Research Institute who is heading up a committee to link up researchers with future suborbital spaceflights.

Until recently, suborbital space trips were marketed primarily as the penultimate high for well-heeled thrill-seekers. Plunking down $200,000 for an afternoon-long ride to weightless heights was seen as the next adventure for folks who have been around the world, down to Antarctica and up to Everest - but can't take a $35 million trip to the international space station.

But is the tourist market big enough to sustain private-sector spaceflight, particularly in the early years? Virtually all the major players in the still-gestating suborbital industry now realize that research flights could make the difference in their drive to profitability.

One of the clearest signs of that came last month, when an Arab investment group bought a $280 million stake in British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic venture, putting special emphasis on the capability to fly scientific experiments and deploy small satellites.

California-based XCOR Aerospace and Masten Space Systems have made research missions a big part of their business plans. Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace has a deal to fly experiments from Purdue University on its experimental "Mod" rocket. Even Blue Origin, the secretive space effort backed by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, has worked out plans to fly suborbital experiments, starting with unmanned tests currently set for 2011.

Scientists are already organizing themselves to take advantage of the opportunities ahead. This week, Stern convened the first meeting of a committee known as the Suborbital Applications Research Group (SARG, or "Sarge"), organized in Boulder, Colo., under the aegis of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. After the meeting, Stern and others touted the effort at a meeting of a http://www8.nationalacademies.org/cp/meetingview.aspx?MeetingID=3547&MeetingNo=5">National Academies board in Boulder.

"I think this is going to be an enormous, enormous enterprise," Stern told me.

Why do it?
There are other options for space research, of course, ranging from zero-G airplane flights to suborbital sounding rockets to unmanned orbital and deep-space flights to space station experiments. So why would researchers, and even NASA, opt for rides on private spaceships that have yet to be built?

Cost is just one reason, Stern told me. A $200,000 ticket for a space ride may sound expensive for a tourist, but it's peanuts compared to the $2 million or more charged for the launch of a NASA sounding rocket, he said.

What's more, the coming suborbital spaceships will be "a completely different breed of cat from all the rockets that are around," Stern said. Eventually, Virgin Galactic intends to fly its SpaceShipTwo fleet several times a day - compared with perhaps a couple of dozen NASA suborbital rocket launches in the course of a year.

"If you could go at [an experiment] every day of the year and see the atmosphere changing, how powerful would that be?" Stern said. "This becomes a laboratory-like experience."

Piloted spaceships are also likely to provide a more robust environment for research. Scientists would be more likely to get their experiment back and less likely to lose it in a hard landing. "These vehicles will be designed to fly octogenarians in good health," Stern said. "Well, what does that mean to me as a scientist? If it can fly grandmas, I can pull the rack out of my lab, and it should be able to fly in space. That's a radical change."

Experimenters could also fly along with their experiments - not just once, but multiple times. "Graduate students will be doing their own Ph.D.s in these vehicles," Stern predicted.

John Gedmark, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said suborbital research opportunities could give students valuable experience in designing experimental packages, integrating them with launch vehicles and actually seeing the hardware fly. "That's an experience that's just difficult to get elsewhere in the space industry," Gedmark told me. 

What to do?
The researchers who attended this week's committee meeting anticipate that private-sector flights will cut out virtually all the red tape currently required for space station experiments. John Pojman, a chemistry professor at Louisiana State University, is looking forward to quick progress on his research into fluid dynamics - specifically, how fluids of different densities mix under various conditions.

Years ago, Pojman was in line to have one of his experiments flown on the space station. "We passed our scientific review, we were in design mode, and then after the Columbia [disintegrated in 2003], we were 'deflighted,'" he recalled.

NASA's managers eventually jury-rigged an experiment that involved injecting a squirt of Russian honey into water recovered from the station's urine collection system. Pojman said it took 900 e-mails and numerous teleconferences over the course of six months to work out the details. "The astronauts were great, but that was a lot of trouble for something that I think should have been easier to get approval for," he said.

More rigorous zero-gravity experiments could be done much more easily on a suborbital spaceship, Pojman said. "We don't need orbital time periods," he said. "We don't need hours, we just need minutes."

Stern said a wide range of experiments could be done in life sciences, materials science or even planetary science. "One of the things I want to do is look for the vulcanoids, close to the sun," he told me. "We'll take a bunch of deep images of the sky, and we'll find them if they're there. We can nail this problem in a few flights."

Even space tourists could be enlisted for research. "We're going to instrument the tourists, and we're going to fly hundreds of thousands of experimental subjects," Stern said.

Who's involved?
The next steps are to prepare researchers for the suborbital flights ahead. If test flights begin in 2010 and 2011, as currently anticipated, the time for developing experiments is right now. To jump-start the process, the Southwest Research Institute has scheduled a suborbital flight training course for a dozen researchers at the National AeroSpace Training and Research Center, or NASTAR, in Pennsylvania in January.

Stern is also organizing a February conference for researchers interested in suborbital opportunities - and expects hundreds to attend. He also expects a wide variety of governmental agencies to get into the act.

"This is so cheap, and the applications are so good, that I expect NIH, NSF, DOD, DOE, a whole slew of federal agencies will have space efforts, just like federal agencies have boats and airplanes that they use," he said. "Literally, Aruba could afford to have a spaceflight program. ... Every country that wants to have their own space program with astronauts can go."

That would be the fulfillment of a years-long dream for Stern, who was once in line to become an astronaut and later spent a yearlong stint as the space agency's associate administrator for science. He was among those who persuaded NASA administrator at the time, Mike Griffin, to lend his backing to private-sector suborbital research flights.

"Mike loved it," Stern recalled. "It's sort of stymied right now. There's no champion for it, but I think NASA will figure it out, and the research community will see that this is so powerful."

To hear Stern talk, the sky's the limit when it comes to science on suborbital spaceships. He likens the current situation to the state of space science just after World War II, when American researchers didn't know what to do with all the V-2 rockets brought over from Nazi Germany.

"By the time the International Geophysical Year came along in 1957, the scientific community didn't know how they could live without sounding rockets," Stern said. "I told my committee, we are in 1946. And I told them that by 2019, no one will know how to live without this."

Alan Stern is also principal investigator for NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. You can read more about Stern and the Pluto debate in this archived Cosmic Log item and in my forthcoming book, "The Case for Pluto."  The book won't be out until November, but you can pre-order it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Borders. You can also join the Cosmic Log team right now by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter.