The NASA Flight Opportunities Program, which provides funding to fly technology payloads on suborbital spacecraft and other platforms, may be in danger.
Sources tell us that Congress is unhappy with the current direction of the Flight Opportunities Program, which has been a political football since its inception.
The Flight Opportunities Program was created by the merger of two previous NASA programs: Facilitated Access to Space Technology (FAST), which provided flights for experiments on microgravity research aircraft, and Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRusR).
The CRuSR program was conceived with the explicit goal of helping to kickstart the commercial suborbital spaceflight industry by providing a steady, guaranteed market for research payloads. NASA requested $75 million in funding ($15 million per year for five years). CRuSR was never funded as a separate program, however.
CRuSR did not receive a Congressional appropriation until it was combined with FAST to create the Flight Opportunities Program. The combined program is funded at a nominal $17 million per year, but it remains to be seen how stable that funding is.
CRuSR was originally created under NASA’s now-defunct Innovative Partnerships Program, but the Flight Opportunities Program is under the NASA Office of the Chief Technologist. As a result, Flight Opportunities has a goal to promote the development of technologies of interest to NASA missions; promoting the development of a commercial suborbital spaceflight industry is now only a secondary goal. With that change in goal, the Old Guard in the balloon and sounding-rocket communities argued, successfully, that Flight Opportunities should include their platforms as well. (They did not, of course, offer to transfer any funding from NASA’s existing sounding-rocket or balloon programs to Flight Opportunities.)
Out of the $17 million appropriation, the “CRusR” portion of Flight Opportunities has $10 million available for flight purchases, to be split between four suborbital spacecraft developers (Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, XCOR Aerospace, and Virgin Galactic), one balloon company (Near Space Corporation), and two sounding-rocket companies (UP Aerospace and Whittinghill Aerospace). Further complicating matters for Flight Opportunities Program managers is a NASA Headquarters policy that prohibits flying human-tended payloads on suborbital spacecraft.
The Flight Opportunities Program has not made as much progress as NASA hoped when CRuSR was proposed back in 2009. This is partly due to the funding delays and reorganizations and partly due to the lack of suborbital flight opportunities. XCOR and Virgin Galactic expect to begin powered flight tests of their suborbital spacecraft in early 2013. Armadillo and Masten are already flying vehicles but at a fairly low flight rate, which has led to a lack of suborbital flight opportunities for the Flight Opportunities Program.
It’s this low flight rate that’s now causing concern in Congress. Congressional staffers are concerned that Flight Opportunities is getting a large amount of money but not generating a large number of flights.
There’s some validity to those concerns, but some crocodile tears as well. Although the flight providers must take primary responsibility for their schedule slips, Congress contributed to the problem by slow-rolling the CRuSR program, which was meant to incentivize and stimulate vehicle development. Additionally, Congressional staffers don’t appear to understand that experimenters need substantial lead time to get experimenters ready for flight. NASA needs to sign contracts with experimenters before the vehicles start to fly in order to avoid substantial delays when the vehicles are ready. Finally, we will note that NASA is spending billions of dollars on the Orion capsule and Space Launch System, which are years away from initial test flight and many more years away from operational flights. That time frame is totally acceptable to Congress. It seems odd that staffers would show greater concern about the Flight Opportunities Program, whose annual budget would not even cover the interest on Orion and SLS cost overruns.
There is, however, another problem causing delays in the Flight Opportunities Program — and this problem is completely under the control of Congress.
Some members of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program staff have privately expressed their frustration with the restrictions of the FAA licensing process for suborbital spacecraft. Flight Opportunities would like to fly payloads on new vehicles as soon as possible, but current regulations prohibit carrying payloads for hire until the vehicle receives an FAA commercial launch license. Prior to licensing, spacecraft can fly under an experimental permit for a limited period of time, but they cannot carry payloads for hire.
These regulations are modeled on FAA regulations for commercial and experimental aircraft. Commercial aircraft receive FAA type certificates, which allow them to carry passengers and payloads for hire. Experimental aircraft fly under experimental airworthiness certificates (analogous to experimental permits for spacecraft). Experimental certificates do not allow an aircraft to carry passengers or payloads for hire, with certain limited exemptions (such as charitable fundraising events).
Here’s where the analogy breaks down, however. In the aircraft world, the phrase “for hire” has a specific technical meaning. It does not include all compensated uses of an experimental aircraft. Applications such as racing, exhibition, and (most significantly, in this context) scientific research are not considered “for hire” and are specifically recognized by the FAA as approved legal uses for experimental aircraft.
Congress could clarify the definition of “for hire” for experimental spacecraft, specifying that scientific research is not to be considered “for hire.” That change would bring the experimental-permit regulations closer to the experimental aircraft regulations and allow NASA to buy research flights on spacecraft that are still in the experimental stage. Congress could make this change with one line of legislation. It would do more to help get Flight Opportunities back on track than six months of Congressional hearings and threats of budget cuts.