NASA Still Hopes to Fly Payloads on Virgin Galactic, XCOR Space Planes

Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

If 2014 really is the year the commercial suborbital industry finally takes off, one NASA program is ready to take advantage of the opportunity and help it gain altitude.

It is the agency’s Flight Opportunities Program, which originally began in 2009 as the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research program. Since then, it has been merged with the the FAST (Facilitated Access to Space Technology) program, and both were moved to the Space Technology Mission Directorate.

The original idea was fairly simple. NASA would pre-approve various reusable suborbital systems which were in the process of development to be used as platforms for carrying out many of the smaller high altitude and zero gee experiments the agency routinely funds. Researchers could then match their experiments to platform system which best suited it, and everybody, particularly reusable space place development efforts would benefit.

In 2011, NASA selected seven companies to provide the services, going on to select 69 payloads  which have thus far seen 25 flights.  Viewed from the perspective of reusable suborbital systems however, it has thus far been a bit of a disappointment,  as two of the most notable systems under development, the XCOR Lynx and the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, have yet to begin operations. XCOR was chosen as a provider in 2011, announcing payload processing agreements with four companies,  but the Lynx has not quite gotten off the runway.

Instead flights have taken place aboard sounding rockets, parabolic aircraft and high altitude balloons, with Masten Space System’s Zombie vertical takeoff and landing test article being an important exception.

Now however, the agency is opening up a new round of proposals, while extending an invitation to previously approved companies which have yet to see flight, to re-bid.  With both Virgin Galactic and XCOR ever closer to starting commercial service, both will now get a chance for a second bite of the apple.

The complete announcement is here.:




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