Besides amateur camera-balloons, it’s pretty difficult to get a viable science experiment into space. You need to buy a launch vehicle, license it, find a place to launch from, protect your payload, and get permission to actually launch, for starters. In the past, you might have partnered with NASA to do this, but it’s never been easy to win federal support for a rocket or space station excursion, and it’s about to get even harder after the space shuttles retire this summer.
But the transition away from the shuttle is promising for experimenters, as a new generation of privately built and operated spacecraft is poised to take over. The commercial space tourism industry will transform the way scientists study microgravity, offering lower prices and greater convenience than anything the government can provide. Scientists will no longer need to apply to NASA to do their experiments. Even better, they won’t have to join the astronaut corps to get to space in person, a paradigm shift that could make cutting-edge research much more widely accessible.
Steven Collicott, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University, is one of several scientists planning new experiments that are designed to fly on space tourist vehicles, rather than the type of sounding rockets scientists have used since the 1950s.
“The new generation of these commercial suborbital rockets look like they should come in much cheaper and fly much more frequently than the older rockets, and be a lot simpler to build experiments for, in terms of volume, cushioning and so on,” he said.
For their part, commercial spaceflight firms say they are looking forward to flying scientists along with adventure-seekers.
“The idea that science students, college students who are involved in relevant fields, could actually go to space — not just one or two via the astronaut corps, but dozens or even hundreds over time — I think is really exciting,” said George Whitesides, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic. “We’re pretty excited about it, and that educational potential, beyond the potential for actual scientific results, is a big part of it.”
In February, the Southwest Research Institute booked eight flights on Virgin Galactic and reserved another six on an XCOR Lynx 1 rocket plane, the first research institution to buy tickets to space. Virgin will not say exactly when the first commercial flights will take off, but Whitesides said the company will get to space next year.
Meanwhile, several other researchers have scheduled payloads to fly on test flights, including Collicott, who has helped his students design projects to fly on rockets built by Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems and XCOR.
He also designed a National Science Foundation-funded fluid dynamics experiment that will fly on an upcoming unmanned test flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard gumdrop-shaped rocket ship. Collicott said when the rockets start launching, experiments will get into space a lot faster than they do now.
“It’s cheap enough that you could do innovative tasks without having to go through and convince peer review panels, perhaps,” he said. “You can real be innovative and take risks. If it doesn’t work, well, you didn’t spend that much, and you can probably afford a second flight to do a better version of it.”
Blue Origin, founded by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, is famously secretive about its plans, but the company says unmanned experiments aboard test flights could start as early as this year. Collicott’s experiment, one of three selected so far, will examine how surface tension and capillary action function in space. He’s currently an investigator on an experiment on board the International Space Station, too, but he’s excited about the prospect of frequent short space trips.
“Being up there (on ISS) is really the ultimate. But how often can you afford the ultimate in your career? There are a lot of ideas — a more affordable lab would allow a lot more people to look at a lot more things,” he said. “It can make zero-gravity research time no longer this very precious and limited quantity, but something that basically, you can have a little shrink-wrapped container in a store, and say ‘I’ll buy these two flights.'”
Alan Stern, associate vice president for research and development at SWRI, has been the leading evangelist for privatized suborbital research. He serves as a consultant for Blue Origin and organized a conference in February for suborbital researchers, where he announced SWRI’s plans to fly its scientists in suborbital space.
“We are strong believers in the transformational power of commercial, next-generation suborbital vehicles to advance many kinds of research,” he said at the time.
SWRI planetary scientist Dan Durda will be one of the first scientists to fly in suborbital space, having already tried the astronaut route.
He has been training in an F-18, where he honed some experiments he plans to bring on board the Lynx or SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. One is an astronomical imaging system he designed, which can take measurements out the spacecraft window to study distant stars, the upper atmosphere and even land use on Earth. In another experiment, he’ll be wearing a bio-harness that will monitor his blood pressure, heart rate and other cardiovascular data. And finally, he will collide some miniature balls to study how asteroids form.
Durda barely missed being selected in NASA’s 2003 astronaut class, making it to the final cut of 100 out of more than 3,000 initial applicants. Durda, Stern and Cathy Olkin, another SWRI planetary scientist who will fly on board Virgin or XCOR, have all been astronaut candidates and have all passed NASA flight physicals.
“All three of us have gone through that traditional route, and made it as far into the process as you can get without being selected. Now we’re going to fly anyway,” Durda said. “We don’t take no for an answer.”
But sending experiments into space on a for-profit ship will be very different than elbowing for room on a federal rocket or shuttle. Cheaper costs aside, scientists at universities and private research institutions could face some new legal questions.
Stephen E. Doyle, a space law expert who has worked for private aerospace firms, NASA and the United Nations, said commercial space carriers could raise new questions about intellectual property and technology licensing agreements. The 15 member nations of the International Space Station have patent agreements covering various modules on the ISS and how to handle discoveries made in those modules. The Japanese built the Experiment Module KIBO, and stipulated that it’s Japanese property, and so is anything done within its walls, Doyle said: “Anything done in that lab is Japanese property and would be considered Japanese inventions.”
Similarly, tourist spacecraft companies could conceivably craft contracts that ensure a royalty-free license to any new discoveries made on their ships. A scientist would own any invention that comes from a suborbital eureka moment, but the company that made such an invention possible may want to get a piece of the action — like a privately owned laboratory would want a license to use an invention made at the laboratory.
“Anything that he or she does by way of invention at the lab is going to belong to the inventor. But they (the lab or ship owner) may say, ‘You couldn’t do it if you weren’t in my lab,'” Doyle said.
Under those circumstances, the owner could write a contract requiring a royalty-free right to use the invention, and an agreement to pay royalties if the owner derived any revenues from the invention.
Whitesides said the SWRI contracts don’t delve into that level of detail – he said Virgin executives had not discussed potential licensing agreements.
“It may be that we engage in commercialization deals with other researchers and technologists in the future, but I anticipate the first few deals will be fairly straightforward — as long as it is safe, they have all rights to the results,” he said. “But that’s an interesting point that maybe we should be thinking more about.”
As of last week, Virgin had more than 420 deposits from would-be space travelers hoping to shell out at least $200,000 for a four-minute suborbital experience. How will scientists fit into such a crowded manifest? Whitesides said Virgin aims to fly once a week, and chartered flights would fit into the schedule. In some cases, scientists might even fly along with the tourists, as long as their experiments don’t get in the way, he said.
“These would be charters, or dedicated flights. We may at some point say there is going to be a science flight on July 15, 2013, or something, and just sort of see who wants to come in,” he said.
For companies like XCOR, which only has room for a pilot and a passenger, dedicated science missions will be required.
Since the SWRI announcement, Whitesides has heard from other researchers interested in flying experiments or personnel aboard Virgin Galactic ships, he said. He wouldn’t disclose any names or details.
“People are still sort of getting their heads around the fact that this will be a research platform that’s available to them. As the months and years go by, more and more researchers will realize they can do good science on board,” he said.
Durda said he expects suborbital research to blossom along with the space tourism field.
“It’s going to change how we think about life on Earth,” he said. “Because we’re going to be flying people with a different focus on life, with different backgrounds, I think we’re going to have some amazing breakthroughs and changes that have never surfaced before. It’s going to be an amazing future.”