Currently, there are two major markets for commercial suborbital spaceflight. The first is personal space exploration, also known as “space tourism.” The second is professional scientific research. Based on the initial customer response to date, both appear to be viable markets capable of supporting a growing industry. Nevertheless, it would be useful for the industry to have a third leg to stand on.

We believe that citizen science could be that third leg.

Current markets

The personal spaceflight market is commonly perceived to be a “rich man’s” market. That’s understandable, since the retail price of a ticket currently starts at around $100,000. Many industries, like aviation, began as luxuries for the rich. As late as the 1970’s, people still spoke of “the jet set” – the wealthy elite who could afford air travel. Thanks to the natural evolution of technology, which reduces costs over time, the term “jet set” no longer has any useful meaning. We’re all jet setters now. Nevertheless, marketing spaceflight to the rich has created something of a public (and, more importantly, political) perception problem for commercial spaceflight companies.

The professional, institutional science market does not have the political perception problem. NASA’s Flight Opportunities program (formerly the Commercial ReUsable Suborbital Research or CRUSR program) is proving that suborbital spacecraft can be valuable tools for science, as are private organizations such as the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group, the SouthWest Research Institute, and the Planetary Science Institute.

Unfortunately, professional scientists are dependent on a limited number of institutional funding sources. These scientific institutions tend to be conservative and bureaucratic in their decision making and can be slow to recognize the value of new ideas and tools like reusable suborbital spacecraft. Even when institutional funders recognize the value of an experiment, they may still be slow to act due to funding cycles and timelines which cannot be altered. There is also a common perception, at many institutions, that space science is the domain of NASA – even when an institution recognizes the value of a proposed experiment, supporters may refer the experimenter to NASA for funding in the (often mistaken) belief that NASA has ample funding.

This automatic turning to NASA can create a bottleneck for funding. NASA has its own bureaucracy and funding cycles, and it has numerous constituencies that compete with suborbital spaceflight for funding. Traditional platforms such as sounding rockets, the International Space Station, even weather balloons have advocates who seek funding from the same limited pool. The champions of the new low-cost platforms at NASA have down yeoman work in obtaining science funding, but they are still (understandably) outnumbered by the traditionalists.

Another limitation of professional science, from a spaceflight provider’s viewpoint, is the large amount of handholding that’s required. Researchers often have special requirements; they are not satisfied with a simple ride. They expect help with mission planning, payload integration, and other technical services. These are not insurmountable problems, and a number of third-party payload integrators have already stepped up to help out. Nevertheless, the available of such support services is a limitation on how rapidly the market can develop.

 Citizen scientists as spaceflight customers

Citizen scientists don’t share the same limitations as the other customers. Citizen science generally enjoys a positive reputation – it does not suffer from the “rich man” perception in the minds of the politicians and the press. (That even seems to hold true for very wealthy citizen scientists, like James Cameron.) Citizen scientists are plentiful. A good figure for the total number of people who participate in citizen-science activities is hard to come by, but there are 350,000 users on the Zooniverse website alone. Over 100,000 people show up at Maker Faire in the Bay area. The total number of citizen scientists is probably in the millions, at least.

Citizen scientists are not, in general, dependent on NASA or the Federal government for funding. They are independent decision makers who decide how to use their own time and resources with little or no bureaucracy. They also tend to be Do It Yourselfers, requiring minimal handholding.

Citizen science opportunities

When reusable suborbital spacecraft begin flying, the number of space tourists (more properly called citizen astronauts or citizen space explorers) is expected to grow rapidly. Hundreds, then thousands, of people will fly in space every year. A significant fraction of these citizen astronauts will want to perform an experiment during their flight. Some will be citizen scientists who bring their own experiment. Others will simply want to perform an experiment designed by someone else (or even ride along with an automated experiment).

Some citizen astronauts may carry experiments provided by professional researchers. The special requirements of professional researchers often drive their experiments to dedicated flights, however. In reality, we expect there will be plenty of flight opportunities for both professional and citizen-science payloads.

Consider the XCOR Lynx as an example. In addition to the pilot and one spaceflight participant, Lynx has a payload box behind the pilot’s seat that can accommodate about a dozen small CubeSat-sized experiments. It will also have to aft cowling ports, each of which can accommodate a 2U (double-CubeSat) sized payload. This implies flight opportunities for thousands, then tens of thousands, of small payloads every year.

Citizens in Space will serve as a matchmaking service for citizen scientists and citizen astronauts. We will help citizen citizens who’ve built payloads they want to fly with citizen astronauts who want to be payload operators. We will also help professional researchers who have small payloads. The best citizen-science programs tend to be collaborations between citizen scientists and professional researchers. Citizens in Space will encourage the development of synergistic relationships among citizen scientists, professional researchers, and citizen astronauts.

Priming the pump

Citizens in Space is currently operating in an initial phase that we call “pump priming.” For this phase, we have acquired an initial contract for 10 suborbital flights with XCOR Aerospace – the largest single bulk-purchase of suborbital flights to date. We expect to acquire additional flights from XCOR and other suborbital spaceflight companies in the future. We’re in the process of training our first three citizen astronaut candidates who will act as payload operators. We will be recruiting an additional seven astronaut candidates in the near future.

We are making our payload space available to citizen scientists (or professional researchers) who want to build and fly prototype experiments. We will fly these experiments free of charge, but any experiment submitted to us must be licensed as open-source hardware. We want to develop a catalog of experiments that can be replicated, modified, and built upon by citizen scientists. Even if the experiment is submitted by a university or professional researcher, the design must be replicable by citizen scientists on a typical citizen-science budget using tools and facilities that are commonly available to citizen scientists and the Maker community. That means a well-equipped community machine shop or hackerspace, not Los Alamos National Laboratory, and no one-of-a kind parts or unobtanium. Our hope is that these initial 100 or so experiments will be replicated and flown many, many times in the future,  “priming the pump” for citizen science.

We’re looking for true scientific experiments, which add useful data to the global store of human knowledge, not simply demonstrations of established scientific principles. (Replicating a previous experiment to verify its results is allowed, and a very important part of the scientific process, but the experiment you’re seeking to verify should be one that genuinely warrants verification.) Students are welcome to submit experiments (and we hope many students will), but student experiments will be judged by the same criteria.

Hardware must be submitted to us ready to fly. The deadline for hardware submissions will be far enough in advance of the flight date for us to determine suitable and flight safety. Early submissions will be encouraged.

We also have some specific experiments we would like to see people working on. We will be publishing some ideas on our website in the near future. We’re also planning to offer some cash prizes for some of the more challenging, and scientifically important, experiments.

You’ll be seeing more details on this website over the next few weeks and hearing much more about our plans at Maker Faire in May. We welcome your feedback and hope to see many of you in San Mateo.


Written by Astro1 on April 28th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), Citizens in Space

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