NSRC Day 1 highlights: suborbital research customers, prizes, and vehicle developments

Monday was the first day of the the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. This conference, the second of its kind, is designed to bring together suborbital vehicle developers and the research community, an emerging market for commercial suborbital reusable vehicles. The conference has attracted more than 300 people, compared to the 268 who attended the inaugural NSRC last February in Boulder, Colorado. The three-day conference features presentation on both vehicle capabilities and potential research applications, as well as education, policy, and other issues.

The big announcement Monday was the news that the Southwest Research Institution (SwRI) has purchased seats on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx vehicles for research missions. SwRI bought a total of eight seats—six on Lynx and two on SS2—with an option for nine more. (XCOR actually announced its part of the deal last Thursday, while Virgin waited until Monday.) Three SwRI researchers will fly on this missions, conducing several experiments. SwRI associate vice president Alan Stern, one of three who will fly, said at a press conference Monday that the experiments include a biomedical monitoring harness, a microgravity physics experiment to study asteroid regolith, and an astronomical imaging sensor. (For some additional background on this, see my article in Monday’s issue of The Space Review, incorporating some of these developments.)

On the vehicle side, five suborbital vehicle developers—Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems, Virgin, and XCOR—presented in a panel session at the conference. All but Blue Origin presented at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation conference earlier in February, and are summarized in my TSR article linked to above, so there were not much in the way of new developments (Blue Origin, not at the FAA conference, didn’t offer much in the way of vehicle development updates.) Armadillo’s Neil Milburn did say that Armadillo is currently performing cryo load tests on its “Tube” (aka “STIG”) rocket this week; if those go well they plan a first flight test as soon as March 9 from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

One other development of interest: in his plenary talk Monday morning, FAA associate administrator of commercial space transportation George Nield revealed that the FAA’s 2012 budget proposal includes a $5-million “Low Cost Access to Space” prize. Few other details about the proposed prize are available, although Nield said the FAA would work with other agencies, including NASA and the Defense Department, on implementing the prize.

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