Of all the objections to suborbital spaceflight, this might be the silliest.

In 2010, the National Academy  of Sciences produced a report entitled Revitalizing NASA’s Suborbital Program: Advancing Science, Driving Innovation, and Developing Workforce. (A free copy of the report can be read online or downloaded here.)

Despite the title, the report largely ignored the development of commercial suborbital spacecraft. Most of the 87 pages were devoted to sounding rockets, high-altitude balloons, and an assortment of NASA aircraft including the WB-57, the ER-2, the 747-based SOFIA astronomical observatory – even the DC-8. Suffice it to say, the report stretched the definition of “suborbital” as much as it could be, and then some.

The report did devote a scant four pages to the emerging suborbital spaceflight industry, however. It did not directly mention or endorse NASA’s Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) program but did recommend that NASA “continue to monitor commercial suborbital space developments” – better than nothing, but not much better than nothing.

The report acknowledged that “Low-cost, frequent flights could expand opportunities for hands-on learning, participatory research, and eventually personal experience in spaceflight that are critical to developing technical and scientific competence.” At the same time, however, it worried that commercial suborbital spacecraft might make spaceflight too “simple.”

Opportunities abound for educators and the general public to participate in inspirational projects. However, the committee noted that while opportunities do exist for entry-level education and public outreach activities, outsourcing to commercial suborbital companies does little in the way of training the next generation of systems engineers and contributing to viable workforce development. A hallmark of the planned commercial suborbital program is the simple, easy access to micro-gravity environment requiring only minimal consideration of the larger challenges of spaceflight – the hard part has already been done; the environment is so benign that many of the challenges of spaceflight do not apply (e.g., autonomous execution, thermal stress, radiation, high-g launch environments, high reliability, and so on) and the process for gaining access to space could become so straightforward that the applicability of the educational experience to the NASA way of doing business will be diffused.

We’re reminded of an old computer-science professor who sees the emergence of the early microcomputera. He sees that opportunities exist for entry-level education and public outreach, but at the same time, he fears that “outsourcing” to Apple and Microsoft does little to train the next generation of computer scientists and develop a trained workforce. The hallmark of microcomputers is simple, easy access. Many challenges of traditional computing (batch processing, punchcard machines, and waiting on line at the computer center) no longer apply. He worries that gaining access to computers could become so straightforward that the applicability of the educational experience to the mainframe way of doing business will be diffused.

Believe it or not, we once knew professors who thought that way.

There is only one way to answer this concern.

“Professor, that’s not a bug. It’s a feature!”

Written by Astro1 on November 4th, 2012 , Commercial Space (General)

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    JamesG commented

    In a way they are correct, suborbital is a different technical regime than actual “space”, LEO and beyond. And in contemporary vernacular, “It’s been done.” There is very little development or advancement that needs or even can be done for suborbital flight and most of it does not lead to orbital application. It’s its own “dead-end” technological niche. The technical bar for suborbital is so much lower relative to orbital, that it is a tempting “low hanging fruit” that might draw funding, public and private, away from more ambitious and capital intensive activity, that has much greater long-term potential reward.

    But I agree with the assertion that spaceflight being too simple is a good quality problem to have.

    November 5, 2012 at 9:28 am
      admin commented

      The basis of science is not novelty but repetition. You don’t perform an experiment once and say it’s “been done.”

      The technical bar for sending scientists to sea, to the polar regions, to the Gobi desert, is very low also. Yet, every year, thousands of scientists go to those places. We don’t do these things “because they are hard,” as Kennedy said, but because they are not that hard. We’ve only sent one scientist to the Moon, because that is hard. (Kennedy’s logic was flawed.)

      As for being a dead-end — Yes, just like airplanes, microcomputers, etc. The same thing is said about every new technology. It’s hard for most people to see beyond the first generation.

      November 5, 2012 at 10:41 am
      john hare commented

      Actually quality suborbital is halfway to orbit in terms of DeltaB, just as LEO is halfway to anywhere in the solar system in terms of DeltaV. A company that delivers suborbital fly on demand for reasonable prices has developed a business and technical team that can reach orbit on the next increment. Other than reentry, a suborbital company has to solve all the financial, technical, and operational problems that an orbital company must solve.

      November 5, 2012 at 6:07 pm