Suborbital spacecraft may play an important role in training astronauts for orbital and deep-space missions.
Today, US astronauts (and their foreign counterparts) receive no training on rocket-powered vehicles prior to their first orbital flight. Whether they are pilots or payload operators, they are “thrown into the deep end of the pool” on their first space mission. Space agencies attempt to compensate, through extensive ground-based training and simulation, but the step up from ground-based training to actual flight is still enormous. Then, completing their mission, astronauts face a gap of many months or years before their next flight. Military and airline pilots have to meet regular “currency requirements,” but astronauts have no way to stay current in rocket-powered vehicles.
NASA has recognized the potential value of suborbital spacecraft for astronaut training. In 2008, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said, “We could use commercial suborbital human transportation for early training and qualification of astronauts. If I could buy a seat to suborbital flight for a few hundred thousand dollars, why wouldn’t we have all of our new astros make their first flight in such a manner?” NASA never followed through on proposed studies of such training, however, perhaps because of budget overruns in other areas.
Commercial space companies are interested, however. XCOR Aerospace and Excalibur Almaz recently signed a memorandum of understanding that would open the door for XCOR to provide training for Excalibur Almaz astronauts using the Lynx spacecraft. If the idea catches on, suborbital spaceflight may become a standard part of the training toolkit for all future astronauts.
Such training could provide additional impetus for the development of a commercial spaceports near national space centers. It could be a particular boon to Texas. There has already been talk of establishing a suborbital spaceport at Ellington Airport, adjacent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Commercial suborbital spacecraft would be a useful supplement to the fleet of T-38 Talon jet trainers which NASA already has based at Ellington.
Excalibur Almaz Space Expeditions
Excalibur Almaz is marketing a commercial space capsule called the RRV, or Reusable Reentry Vehicle, based on the TKS capsule developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The TKS capsule was intended for use with the Almaz (military Salyut) space station. It was tested in an unmanned configuration, but the Almaz program was cancelled before manned flights of the capsule were conducted.
Read the rest of this entry »