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Saving Suborbital: Will Congress Kill NASA's Reusable Space Program?

Much of the space news last week was focused on the fate of the president’s new space policy, announced last February, as the congressional authorization and appropriation subcommittees overseeing NASA’s budget took it up. Most eyes were on whether or not the plans for delivering astronauts to space on commercial vehicles would survive the attack on the concept by those who supported the status quo — with its thousands of NASA contractor jobs in Florida, Texas, Alabama, and Utah.

Billions were at stake in that fight, and while the budget for the commercial orbital activities was cut somewhat, it seems to have survived for now. Though in asking the agency to do too much with too little funding, Congress seems to have once again set NASA up for failure.

Almost under the radar, though, except for those with an interest, was a fight over a program much smaller in terms of dollars but with huge potential for the future.

Named the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) program, it was announced in February at a conference in Boulder dedicated to suborbital science. It is a plan for NASA to purchase rides on suborbital vehicles, which are expected to start flying in the next couple years, with an initial planned budget of fifteen million dollars in FY 2011.

What are suborbital vehicles, as opposed to orbital ones? They go into space, but they don’t go into orbit (that is, they don’t go fast enough to generate the centripetal balance against earth’s gravity needed to stay in space indefinitely). They go up for brief (a few minutes, at least for now) excursions into space, to sample the environment, or allow a few minutes of weightlessness or a good view of the planet below, before they descend back into the atmosphere.

This is not a new concept — NASA has been sponsoring experiments on sounding rockets for years. What is new is that the proposed vehicles, now in development, are fully reusable, and able to turn around on the ground quickly with little more than refueling. They offer a much lower cost per flight and opportunities for experiments that would have been unaffordable in the past.

One of the things that will happen as a result of this new program is that what has been called the “Ignorosphere” — that region just above the atmosphere (a hundred miles or so) but far below the altitudes needed to sustain an orbit (at least a couple hundred miles) will finally be explored. All previous samplings of this region have happened on a few brief trips through it. The new program will open up much more time for such exploration at an affordable price.

There is a second huge benefit to developing these vehicles and using them, and it will be much more far-reaching.

When there are dozens of flights per week of multiple reusable vehicle types into space, we will start to rapidly accumulate a lot of knowledge of how to operate reusable space vehicles — even if they don’t go all the way to orbit. Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR Aerospace and member of last year’s Augustine panel on the direction of human spaceflight, has long said that it’s a lot easier to develop an operable vehicle and expand its performance envelope than to build a high-performance vehicle and make it operable. Given sufficient market, the suborbital vehicles, whether horizontal or vertical takeoff and landing, will gradually evolve to fly higher and faster, eventually reaching orbit and dramatically reducing the cost of access to space. This is the key to truly opening it up to humanity.

Unfortunately, the House didn’t seem to think that any of this was of much value, preferring pork over progress.

While the Senate authorization bill left intact the (relatively paltry) fifteen million dollars (less than a tenth of a percent of the entire NASA budget) for the program next year, intended to be leveraged to actually allow the purchase of rides for NASA researchers, the House cut it to a trivial million dollars. Barely enough to even work out the issues with the concept, such as payload interface design and how to assess the reliability and safety of the competing providers. Fortunately, the final Senate appropriations bill (and appropriations, not authorization, is the bill that really counts) continues to contain the original NASA request of fifteen million, and the House appropriators voted this week to match it.

But Alan Stern, the former NASA associate administrator (now at Southwest Research Institute) who put together the Boulder conference in February, wants to put a stake through the heart of the notion of cutting the budget. On Facebook today, he sent out a call to everyone interested to call Congress today to kill HR5781, the House authorization bill that would do so, and support the Senate version.

Of course, it may all be moot, at least for now, because the ranking member of the House committee that oversees NASA appropriations, Frank Wolf (R-VA), thinks that it’s unlikely that there will even be an appropriations bill this year. Instead, there will probably be a continuing resolution into the next Congress, which will deal with it next year, when Wolf is likely to become chairman of the committee if the Republicans take back the House. So the suborbital saga is likely to continue, unresolved, for months.

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