NASA Puts Out Call for Commercial Suborbital Flight Services

When it comes to stimulating the commercial space industry, NASA is on a roll. Fresh off a successful flight of a few weeks ago and this week's for lunar landing technology development, the agency is now seeking a few good proposals from researchers interested in testing new technologies during suborbital flight and commercial suborbital reusable launch vehicle providers to take those experiments on a ride.

Selected payloads will fly on aircrafts that provide parabolic flight trajectories to simulate weightlessness and on to-be-named suborbital reusable launch vehicles capable of flying up to altitudes above 62 miles -- about the height you need for a couple of minutes in near-zero gravity, before returning to Earth. 
NASA's solicitation comes out of its Flight Opportunities Program designed to foster development of a commercial reusable suborbital transportation industry while developing new technologies and improving microgravity research.
The selected payloads will fly on aircrafts that provide parabolic flight trajectories and on suborbital reusable launch vehicles capable of flying to altitudes above 62 miles. The flights will expose the payloads to reduced gravity and near-zero gravity environments and commercial reusable vehicles are expected to provide lower-cost, more frequent and more reliable access to space.

The series of technology flights are expected to reduce risks associated with "emerging" (i.e. shiny new, without a track record) technologies and procedures, as well as overall space operations in future missions, by demonstrating applications in the real world. NASAgets to share the research data from the experiments flown, researchers get results, commercial suborbital providers get paid for services and everyone goes home happy.

Responses for the request for information for commercial suborbital reusable services are due by Jan. 20, 2011 while experimenters wanting to fly on the first round of flights are due by Jan. 31, 2011.
The solicitation for the first round of suborbital flights will remain open until Dec. 31, 2014, so there's a lot of potential for one or more commercial providers being able to pick up business -- if they are ready to fly.
It will be interesting to see who out of the current crop of commercial sub-orbital vendors will respond. Virgin Galactic is currently conducting unpowered drop tests for SpaceShipTwo and company founder Sir Richard Branson expects to have the first commercial passengers taking rides within a year. XCOR's first Lynx prototype is expected to start flight testing in early 2011 with the production Mark II spacecraft going into operation anywhere from nine months to eighteen months later. 

XCOR expects that Lynx will be able to make up to four sub-orbital flights per day, carrying one passenger and/or experimental payloads up for about four and a half minutes of microgravity at 62 miles, before returning back to Earth. Virgin Galactic hasn't talked much about flying payloads, instead focusing on being able to put up 6 passengers per flight, but SpaceShipTwo is equally capable of supporting suborbital payloads and would be less volumetrically constrained than Lynx. 

Other contenders for sub-orbital business may include Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin. The company has been exceedingly tight-lipped about its progress since revealing a short test hop of its New Shepard vehicle in Texas back in 2008. At that time, the company said it planned unmanned suborbital flights in 2011 and manned suborbital fights in 2012.

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