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Suborbital science gets boost

— More than 250 researchers, space industry entrepreneurs and NASA officials gathered today at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Boulder, Colo., to give a boost to the concept of doing research on private-sector spaceships.

The concept got a boost, all right: Over the next five years, more than $75 million could be committed for spending on suborbital space research.

Most of that money is expected to come from NASA itself: Lori Garver, the space agency's deputy administrator, said during today's keynote address that the Obama administration's budget proposal calls for spending $15 million a year on suborbital space research in the 2011-2015 time frame.

NASA's Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research program, also known as CRuSR, would distribute the money to research institutions to develop experiments, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation said in a statement.

The proposal still has to gain congressional approval, but researchers and entrepreneurs hailed NASA's commitment as a vote of confidence in private-sector spaceflight. The $75 million sum is more than seven times as much money as was offered for the Ansari X Prize - which was won five and a half years ago by SpaceShipOne, the first privately developed spaceship.

"Since this new generation of commercial vehicles are low-cost, NASA's $75 million will open the floodgates for everyone from astronomers to high-school classrooms to conduct real science in space. This will be one of the best investments NASA has ever made," planetary scientist Alan Stern, the organizer of this week's conference, was quoted as saying in the statement.

"For everyone who has dreamed of participating in the grand adventure of spaceflight, this $75 million commitment marks the dawn of a new space age," he added. "As the commercial space industry continues to grow, I expect that we will see increasing numbers of payloads and people flying to space."

Stern's own home base, the Southwest Research Institute, announced that it would set aside more than $1 million of its own money over the next three years to build and fly experiments on commercial suborbital vehicles. Experimenters could fly along as well.

"We at SwRI are strong believers in the power of commercial next-generation suborbital vehicles to advance space science and sensor technology," Stern said in a separate statement from the institute. "We also believe strongly in the tremendous advance offered by the newly emerging capability to put scientists in space with their experiments."

Stern wears several hats in the space business: He's associate vice president of SwRI's Space Science and Engineering Division in Boulder; the science team leader for NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto; and an adviser to several commercial space ventures including Blue Origin. He's also a former NASA associate administrator and a one-time trainee for a space shuttle flight.

Stern never did go into space on the shuttle, but he could get another chance on a commercial spaceship.

SwRI's spaceflight trainee team includes Stern as well as fellow planetary scientists Dan Durda and Cathy Olkin. Stern and Durda recently went through suborbital space training at NASTAR's facilities near Philadelphia, along with other researchers aiming to fly in space.

"We're finally arriving at the day when space scientists can conduct their research 'in the field,' in the same way that botanists, geologists and oceanographers have been doing all along," Durda was quoted as saying in today's announcement. "We hope that many of our fellow researchers and educators in the diverse disciplines that will benefit from frequent access to space will be right behind us in line to fly."

Stern told me that SwRI's researchers could fly on Blue Origin's
suborbital rocket or on other vehicles currently under development. Among the other companies developing those vehicles are:

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation was established to promote the growth of these companies and other private-sector space ventures.

"We are thrilled to see NASA recognizing the enormous potential of new commercial vehicles for science, research and education," said Mark Sirangelo, who is chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation as well as a top executive at Sierra Nevada Corp.

This week's conference is co-sponsored by SwRI, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and the Universities Space Research Association.

This report was last updated at 8:05 p.m. ET.

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