Although the stereotypical scientist stays in the lab, most researchers spend at least some time studying their subject out in the field. Geologists visit volcanoes, botanists retreat to rain forests, and oceanographers swim the seas. But in the absence of accessible rides to space, astrophysicists and planetary scientists have been forced to watch their experiments leave Earth without them.
That is about to change as the rise of commercial launch providers such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic creates new opportunities for scientists hoping to do their work in space. Most of these opportunities involve suborbital flights—which are sufficient to leave the bulk of Earth’s atmosphere and to experience long periods of microgravity-simulating free fall yet not powerful enough to orbit Earth. Last month NASA selected planetary scientist Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to conduct an experiment, funded by the agency, onboard a commercial spacecraft’s suborbital flight. Stern’s launch date remains uncertain. But he anticipates flying on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo by 2022.
Far from merely being a form of wish fulfillment for starry-eyed researchers, Stern says, sending scientists to space alongside their experiments can have practical benefits, too—such as reducing costs. For example, automating the Southwest Ultraviolet Imaging System (SWUIS) experiment he will operate on his journey would be “significantly more expensive” than simply flying a human operator, Stern says.
Directly involving scientists can also yield better results by allowing for faster and more flexible responses to any contingencies, good or bad, that may occur during an experiment. “Throughout the history of science, the people being involved with the experiments leads to discoveries and greater knowledge,” says Steven Collicott, a researcher at Purdue University and head of the Suborbital Applications Research Group, whose members are industry experts committed to enhancing the opportunities and experience of suborbital flight. “There’s a long history of serendipitous discoveries.”
When a scientist designs and works with an experiment, “she understands immediately if something’s not working right,” says Dan Durda, also at SwRI. “Catching that in real time is an incredibly important part of the way the scientific process works.”
Putting a scientist in the driver’s seat also provides the opportunities for maximizing the scientific research. “If you fly with your experiment, you’re there to observe what’s happening right now and, boom, you can immediately change your experiment’s parameters so you augment your scientific return,” says Julie Brisset, a researcher at the University of Central Florida, who has accompanied experiments on pseudo spaceflights—that is, on airplanes that offer brief bursts of microgravity conditions by flying in parabolic trajectories.
Science in Space
In NASA’s early days, agency officials envisioned regularly sending researchers to space. And in 1972 they dispatched geologist Harrison Schmitt on Apollo 17’s lunar voyage, making him the only professional scientist ever to visit the moon. The agency’s space shuttle was heralded as a workhorse for spacefaring researchers. Extremely high costs and lower than expected flight rates, however, significantly reduced the program’s scientific returns.
Today astronauts operate a bevy of experiments onboard the International Space Station (ISS), but flight opportunities have been, and remain, few and far between, inevitably stranding worthy science on the ground. Additionally, although researchers can telecommunicate with people operating an experiment in orbit, the process is “very cumbersome” and “very rigid,” Brisset says, speaking from her personal experience of remotely shepherding several astronaut-tended ISS science payloads. On balance, she and other say, the scientists themselves would make better in-person caretakers of their experiments, given their more in-depth knowledge.
In the 1990s Stern and his colleagues developed and flew an early version of SWUIS onboard the space shuttle, where, operated by astronauts, it captured images of Venus and Comet Hale-Bopp. Other versions of the instrument have flown on fighter planes. So when NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate issued its first call for scientist-supervised suborbital flight experiments at the beginning of this year, a modified version of SWUIS seemed like a good fit. During his flight, Stern will point the instrument out three of SpaceShipTwo’s windows to calibrate how sunlight passing through rocket exhaust or reflecting off the fuselage could impact delicate astronomical measurements. Although basic, the results could be a boon for researchers planning future observations. “We’re taking proven gear that has flown in space before and turning it to a new application,” Stern says.
At the same time, Stern will track his vital signs throughout the entire flight with a wearable sensor rig called BHEERSS (Biomedical Harness Evaluation of Experimenter Reactions to Suborbital Spaceflight), which has been tested on high-altitude airplane flights. The BHEERSS data from Stern’s suborbital trip, he and his SwRI colleagues say, could offer useful new data about how a normal, nonastronaut human body functions in space.
Wave of the Future
Although including scientists in space comes with its own rewards, getting there has been arduous. For more than a decade, Stern, Durda, Collicott and others have worked to boost awareness of—and policies for—putting researchers in flight. A potential breakthrough came in the summer of 2013, when NASA’s then deputy administrator Lori Garver announced that the agency would be open to flying researchers on suborbital sorties. But that promising spark fizzled out that fall, when Garver left NASA, says Tommy Sanford, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a group of companies and organizations dedicated to opening up access to space for more people. The momentum would not pick up again until after space-loving former congressional representative Jim Bridenstine became NASA’s administrator in 2018.
According to Sanford, NASA’s early 2020 call for human-tended research proposals was “a big step forward.” It laid out the agency’s requirements for acceptable projects in this category, mandating that any spacecraft carrying scientists with NASA-funded experiments must first conduct at least 14 flights without more than one launch or reentry incident. More importantly, the call showed NASA was finally getting serious about the science potential of crewed suborbital spaceflight. “You gotta be sending the right signals to the research and science community to invest their time and effort,” Sandford says.
Brisset agrees that the announcement portends a dawning era of spacefaring scientists, but she remains cautious. The status of all this has been “two years from now for a while now,” she says.
Stern is bullish on the prospects for his near-future journey. Virgin Galactic recently moved its ship to Spaceport America in New Mexico, where it can make its first flight. In 2019 the company launched its chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses into space. Blue Origin has safely flown its New Shepard vehicle 13 times, carrying more than 100 payloads into space. Sanford cautions, however, that even with one more flight, New Shepard’s track record may not meet NASA’s muster because of certain details of the agency’s qualification process. But overall, the plethora of launches is a good sign. “The number of test flights and frequency of them all signal that [private companies] are getting close,” he says.
Before long, Durda expects, researchers will be spending more time in space than the thrill-seeking “space tourists” traditionally seen as suborbital spaceflight’s target demographic. Whereas extreme adventurers might make a single trip (or a handful if they are wealthy), organizations and industries could wind up booking hundreds of suborbital flights per vehicle, he says. “The giggle factor is gone, and people are taking it seriously,” Durda says.
Brisset agrees that many scientists are prepared for space. “The community has been ready for a while,” she says.
Stern expects to be the first of many researchers undertaking suborbital trips. “There’s a huge pent-up demand,” he says. He anticipates that if NASA puts out another call for human-tended experiments next year, a larger number of researchers will apply.
To reach that point, Stern says that vehicles need to be flying routinely. “We need to get to flight rates more like once a week,” he says. Once routine operations are underway, Stern hopes to see more and more astronomers and planetary scientists taking flight with their experiments. “I think that’s the wave of the future,” he says.