Last week, we attended the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching in San Antonio. During the three-day conference, hundreds of teachers visited our booth and signed up for our email list. We also had the chance to talk to many teachers about the way they are using space in the classroom.
We talked to a number of teachers who had participated, or were participating, in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program being run by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education and NanoRacks. All of them were enthusiastic about the program. At the same time, however, they also talked about the challenge of fitting a student experiment into the small test-tube size payload volume.
The teachers expressed a clear desire for larger payload volumes. We mentioned the CubeSat form factor (10 centimeters on a side), which they seemed to like.
At the same time, of course, schools have limited financial resources. NanoRacks has done an admirable job of streamlining the process for flying educational payloads to the International Space Station, but launch costs are not under their control. By squeezing 15 payloads into a CubeSat volume, they’re able to keep costs down to $21,500 – a price that’s within reach of school fundraising and sponsorship programs. That includes both launch costs and Nanorack’s own expenses and overhead.
It would be great if schools could fly a CubeSat-sized payload for $21,000, or even less, but that isn’t going to happen until launch costs go down. Before someone says, “Elon Musk is going to do that” – no, he isn’t. At least, not in the near term. Nanoracks is already flying on the Dragon capsule and paying SpaceX prices. Further cost reductions are necessary.
The real answer, in the near term, is reusable suborbital spacecraft. The XCOR Lynx, for example, can easily accommodate a dozen CubeSat experiments with a payload operator. Without a payload operator, it could carry 100 or more. Based on XCOR’s initial retail price of $95,000 per flight, this means launch costs of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per cube. Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, and Virgin Galactic will be offering flights at similar price points.
If the price of flying an experiment is reduced to the cost of a classroom microscope, space science could become a standard part of every high-school science curriculum. That would require streamlining the payload integration process as well as reducing launch costs. There will be a lot of work for payload integrators such as NanoRacks to do. Even orbital launch companies like SpaceX would benefit from a suborbital flight program for educational payloads. It would create an entry-level market for space experiments, some of which might grow into larger, orbital experiments.