Commercial research flights are taking off. Should humans go along for the ride?

The era of commercial suborbital research may finally be upon us. For years, a core group of scientists, from fields ranging from medicine to fluid mechanics, have advocated for flying experiments on the new generation of suborbital vehicles under development by companies such as Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, arguing they offer a low-cost, frequent way of flying experiments that needed several minutes of microgravity or access to the space environment.

Only in recent months, though, are those experiments getting to fly. At the recent Nextgeneration Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC), held for the first time in three years, scientists and engineers were able to talk about experiments that have flown on suborbital vehicles. That included two payloads Blue Origin flew on an April test flight of its New Shepard vehicle.

“We’re getting real data from real suborbital flights. The field has arrived,” said Dan Durda, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute who flew an experiment on that April flight. That experiment was intended to study the surface properties of small asteroids to see how small rocks settled into place in gravity just a few thousandths that of Earth.

Durda and some other scientists, though, want to do more than fly experiments on suborbital vehicles: they want to fly with their experiments. Some of these suborbital vehicles, like New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo, are designed to primarily serve the space tourism market, which means they can accommodate people as well as payloads.

At a panel during the conference, scientists argued there are good reasons why, in at least some cases, researchers should fly with their research. The benefits of having a scientist “in the loop” with the experiment, they believe, outweigh both the risks of the flight itself and perceptions that scientists are getting joyrides.

One issue is simplicity. Automated experiments are more difficult and expensive to develop than those requiring at least some degree of human interaction, and run a higher risk of failing in flight. “In some cases, it’s too cost-prohibitive and kills the schedule to come up with an autonomous system for a one-off experiment,” said Todd Smith, a researcher at the Applied Physics Lab working on suborbital flight experiments.

Some experiments may also require close attention during a flight. Makenzie Lystrup, a planetary scientist who now works for Ball Aerospace, compared it to astronomical observations that, in some cases, can’t be automated or done by another astronomer.

“There are a lot of times when you absolutely need to be at the telescope,” she said. “You need access to the instruments, or you need to be very dynamic about making changes to the experiment from moment to moment. There are times when a human has to be there, in the loop.”

Beyond the practical reasons of experiment design and operation, suborbital research advocates make more philosophical points. They argue that rather than treating space science as special — something done only by sophisticated robotic spacecraft or professional astronauts — it should be treated like any other branch of science, where scientists routinely go into the field to do their research.

“This can be viewed, and maybe ought to be talked about, as another laboratory environment that people live and work in as a normal course of the way science is done,” said Rob Ferl, a University of Florida botany professor. “Somehow we’ve lost that in space exploration.”

Ferl, as part of his research studying the effects of microgravity on gene expression in plants, has flown on high-performance jets to expose experiments to brief periods of weightlessness. He said getting approval to make those flights didn’t pose any special challenges with his university, and suspected the same would be true with future suborbital flights.

“Working in high-performance jets almost pales in comparison to the people who are out on ships for months at a time, or people going to the poles,” he said. The risks of those flights, he concluded, “is well within the envelope of risk” that universities are willing to accept for research.

Durda noted that oceanographers have, for decades, traveled thousands of meters below the ocean surface in deep sea submersibles. “There’s a window of opportunity here to use that analogy,” he said. “It’s exactly the same risk environment, and that research community has had that opportunity literally for decades.”

One key challenge, though, is convincing those who fund suborbital experiments to allow researchers to accompany their experiments. NASA’s Flight Opportunities program funds flights of experiments on suborbital vehicles, as well as high-altitude balloons and low-altitude reusable launch vehicles. However, the program, since its inception more than five years ago, won’t allow scientists to fly with their experiments.

That policy was supposed to change. Speaking via videoconference at the last NSRC three years ago, Lori Garver, NASA deputy administrator at the time, announced that prohibition would be lifted. “We absolutely do not want to rule out paying for research that could be done by an individual spaceflight participant — a researcher or payload specialist — on these vehicles in the future,” she said then.

That announcement seemed to take Flight Opportunities program management by surprise, who said at the 2013 conference they didn’t yet have specific plans for funding humantended experiments. A few months later, Gar ver left the agency. That, along with vehicle development delays, took away any urgency for allowing humans to fly.

The prohibition on funding humantended experiments remains in place, with no immediate plans to remove it. “To be honest with you, I do not have a strategy for how to move human-tended suborbital spaceflight forward,” said Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator for space technology, when asked about the issue after his speech at the 2016 NSRC.

A separate problem is finding a ride. Some suborbital vehicle companies are simply not interested in flying people. Masten Space Systems, which operates several rocket-powered vehicles that takeoff and land vertically, has flown a number of Flight Opportunities payloads on low-altitude flights, and company leadership says they may pursue high-altitude flights if there’s demand. Human spaceflight, though, isn’t on its roadmap.

“As payloads, we’re rather inefficient, kind of squishy, and have a tendency to want to be kept alive,” said Sean Mahoney, chief executive of Masten Space. “We don’t want to deal with humans.”

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, though, is designed to carry people. The company is part of the Flight Opportunities program and already has one dedicated research flight lined up on that vehicle. However, that flight won’t carry a scientist, but instead a company employee serving as a payload specialist, primarily making sure the experiments don’t pose a safety issue to the vehicle.

Will Pomerantz, vice president for special projects at Virgin Galactic, said the company is open to eventually replacing that payload specialist with a NASA or university employee, but didn’t guess when that might happen.

Blue Origin appears more willing to allow scientists to fly with their payloads, beyond restrictions imposed by Flight Opportunities. While current test flights don’t carry people, commercial flights with people could begin as soon as 2018, and company officials said they would be open to flying scientists who want to operate their own experiments.

 University of Florida botanist Robert Ferl conducts a plant experiment aboard a NASA’s aircraft that can provide about 25 seconds of weightlessness at a time by making a series of steep climbs and dives known as parabolas. Credit: NASA

University of Florida botanist Robert Ferl conducts a plant experiment aboard a NASA’s aircraft that can provide about 25 seconds of weightlessness at a time by making a series of steep climbs and dives known as parabolas. Credit: NASA

“An astronaut is a very well-trained graduate student, but they are not the same as having your own hands on the hardware,” said Erika Wagner, business development manager at Blue Origin.

Scient i st s are aware that, if the funding and technical obstacles are eventually overcome, there’s another issue they will have to deal with: the perception that scientists flying on suborbital vehicles designed primarily for tourists are simply going for joyrides.

“What we need to do is to make sure we make good cases,” said Lystrup, “so it’s not seen as just people who want to go into space for fun, and happen to do science.”

However, having scientists fly, and even have a little fun, could have benefits beyond the results of their experiments. Marsh Cuttino, a physician who has done microgravity research on aircraft, said that “creating an emotionally charged event” is an essential part of exploration and research, making a connection to a wider audience.

That could make suborbital research, with scientists on board, interesting to the public. “Our rockets,” he said, “need humans.”