It was announced on June 3rd that NASA’s Flight Opportunities program (NASAFO) has selected one dozen science experiments to be flown aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.
This is validation of the “suborbital science” concept. If you’ve read my earlier post about the Suborbital Applications Research Group (SARG), then you can understand my excitement about this announcement.
Suborbital spaceflight is much more than an adventure sport of the super wealthy. Like the X-15 hypersonic research program, suborbital vehicles operate in a realm very different from both orbital and aerial craft. This transition zone, the fuzzy line between atmosphere and space, is largely unexplored.
There exists an incredible diversity of scientific disciplines that can take advantage of the minutes of microgravity that can be achieved during a parabolic sortie. NASA Flight Opportunities, which is the space agency’s office that manages the process of flying scientific payloads on launch vehicles, has taken advantage of the emerging commercial spaceflight industry and the proliferation of new spacecraft. Virgin made available the cabin of their suborbital spacecraft, SS2, exclusively for science experiments on its inaugural test flight to the edge of space. For a list of the payloads selected, click here
Although there have been many detractors to the longevity of the SS2 flight test program, incremental progress is being made. Every flight provides data from which engineers can improve upon the performance and safety of the vehicle. Test flying experimental aircraft is a hazardous vocation, and one not tolerant of haste. So while space tourists and payloads must wait for VG’s commercial flights to begin, that wait is necessary to ensure that every effort is made to mitigate risks.
The date- or even year- that Virgin Galactic will begin commercial operations isn’t known yet. But, following this recent news, it is clear that the company will be a leader in the field of suborbital science.