NASA to establish a system for flying astronauts and researchers on suborbital commercial spacecraft

NASA is going to chart a path for its astronauts and other personnel to take part in future commercial suborbital spaceflight missions, letting the agency conduct experiments and do research aboard suborbital human spacecraft — including, potentially, vehicles like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. The agency isn’t naming any individual providers yet, however, as the announcement of this program is also accompanied by an official Request for Information (RFI) seeking industry input to pave the way for a fully sketched out plan, including contracting with suppliers.

This is a big development because it’s a significant change from the way NASA has flown its personnel to space to date. Suborbital missions haven’t really been a thing for NASA astronauts since the very early days of the American human spaceflight program, including the X-15 research system and Mercury, the spaceflight program that paved the way for the Apollo missions.

NASA has shifted considerably its approach to public-private partnerships when it comes to space, however, including the development, and now early real-world demonstration success, of the Commercial Crew Program, which taps private partners SpaceX and Boeing to fly NASA astronauts to orbital space — and the International Space Station in particular.

In a release announcing the news, NASA notes that the private space industry has reached a point where it’s about to begin offering suborbital spaceflights as a service — something Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin appear closest to achieving — and that “NASA wants to be a buyer.”

“Suborbital human spaceflight has the potential to provide NASA a great way to meet the agency’s needs and continue our efforts to enable a robust economy in space,” Phil McAlister, director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Headquarters, said in the release. “It is notable that no NASA funds were used for the development of suborbital vehicles, but we can participate in the market as a buyer. The U.S. aerospace industry is proving again that it is technically and financially capable of developing safe, reliable, and cost-effective space systems.”

NASA believes that making use of suborbital spacecraft operated by commercial partners will give them cost-effective ways to conduct research, as well as test and qualify hardware designed for use in microgravity environments, including on the ISS, without having to book that into an actual ISS mission. It’ll assist with crew training, and provide opportunities for researchers and investigators to conduct their work in microgravity without necessarily requiring the same degree of astronaut training as orbital, long-duration missions.