Scientists and engineers who see a way to use the nascent generation of commercial suborbital human-rated spacecraft in their work will have a shot at NASA grants of as much as $500,000 to help with funding. Just in time for the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference next week, the U.S. space agency has issued a call for proposals seeking suborbital payloads that could lead to “game-changing” technologies for future space travel. NASA expects to issue about 20 awards, most of them in the $50,000-125,000 range. But “several” may be worth far more for work that will enhance the research capabilities of vehicles such as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo and the XCOR Aerospace Lynx.

“This solicitation offers an opportunity to develop potentially transformative technologies that take advantage of our Flight Opportunities Program platforms, which allow frequent and predictable commercial access to near-space, with easy recovery of intact payloads,” says Michael Gazarik, director of the Space Technology Program in the office of the chief technologist at NASA headquarters.

Once proposals are selected and funded, they will be matched with one of the seven U.S. companies chosen last August to provide flight opportunities for researchers and/or their payloads on suborbital human vehicles, unpiloted reusable launchers and high-altitude balloons (AW&ST Aug. 15, 2011, p. 20). NASA says the selection will place “special emphasis [on] proposals that address basic and applied research as well as development for advanced technologies and the development of test articles and techniques for evaluating the articles.”

The grants should add momentum to a commercial space market scarcely envisioned when Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne took the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004. Since then, suborbital human spaceflight has been pitched as much to researchers with a need for hands-on experimentation or quick-turnaround reflights as to wealthy space tourists looking for a thrill ride. Topics at the Suborbital Researchers Conference in Palo Alto, Calif., will include lessons from parabolic flight, flight training for scientists and engineers, and how-to sessions on preparing suborbital projects in such areas as astrophysics, solar physics and atmospheric, ionospheric and aeronomical science. The conference organizers will also raffle off a future suborbital flight.

Among the speakers at the Palo Alto conference will be George Nield, associate FAA administrator for commercial space transportation. As evidence of the growing maturity of the commercial suborbital marketplace, the FAA has awarded the Florida Institute of Technology almost $90,000, with a matching grant from Space Florida, to identify issues that must be addressed as commercial space vehicles are integrated into the national aerospace system. One question that will be addressed is whether the FAA should develop “high-speed, high-altitude climb corridors” for commercial space vehicles.

Another sure sign of growing interest in commercial suborbital spaceflight is a fledgling Washington lobbying organization. The Commercial Spaceflight Federation says it will set up a “suborbital coalition” for education, information and to “facilitate interaction between policymakers in Washington, researchers and educators on the broad benefits of suborbital spaceflight.”