NanoRacks, LLC has completed an internal investigation into the failure of some student experiments that were delivered to the International Space Station by the SpaceX Dragon in May and returned by the Russian Soyuz in July.

The failed experiments were among 15 flown under the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education’s Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

The experiments were to be activated by ISS astronauts, but some of the experiments did not activate. The failure has been traced to inadequate training of ISS crew members on experiment operation. Due to time considerations, the astronauts received no training on the student experiments prior to flight. Training on experiment operation consisted of watching a video onboard the space station.

To prevent a repeat of the problem, Nanoracks plans to train ISS astronauts on future experiments prior to flight. NanoRacks will also refly the failed experiments free of charge, according to Space News.

While improved training will likely solve the immediate problem, these failures show the limitations of current orbital space operations.

Reflying the experiments means the mission will be a money-loser for NanoRacks. Reflights are also dependent on the limitations of the ISS resupply manifest. The lead time for ISS flights is a problem for all experimenters, but it’s particularly troublesome for educational experiments, which typically need to be completed within a single school year.

Training astronauts prior to flight can also be problematic. On a long-duration mission to ISS, many months may elapse between the pre-flight training and the time an experiment is to be performed, allowing procedural skills to erode.

In an ideal world, a NanoRacks payload technician would fly to ISS with the hardware, activate the experiment, and return to Earth with the results.

That’s not feasible today, nor will it be feasible in the near future. That sort of routine access to orbit requires orders-of-magnitude reductions in launch costs, not the modest reductions promised by the commercial crew capsules being developed under NASA’s CCDEV program. Order-of-magnitude reductions await the development of fully reusable launch systems. We are confident such systems will appear, but they’re still some ways down the road.

Order-of-magnitude cost reductions are possible in the near future, however, with suborbital launch systems. Many small-scale experiments currently performed aboard ISS could be performed aboard suborbital spacecraft at much lower cost. Other experiments require the longer-term exposure to space conditions that is only available on orbital flights. Even those experiments might benefit, however, from preliminary testing on suborbital flights. Preliminary testing on suborbital flights might reveal problems with experiment activation procedures, for example.

NanoRacks appears to recognize this. The company has joined XCOR’s Payload Integrator Network, and the NanoRacks website states, “We are working with XCOR Aerospace to develop a seamless system of microgravity research opportunities from suborbital to space station.”

The United States Rocket Academy believes this incident validates our decision to concentrate on suborbital flights, which promise lower launch costs and more rapid reflight opportunities, and our commitment to a strong pre-flight training program for payload operators.

Written by Astro1 on July 15th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), NanoRacks, XCOR Aerospace

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