NRC Calls for Reinvigoration of NASA's Suborbital Research Program

NRC Calls for Reinvigoration of NASA's Suborbital Research Program

In 2008, Congress directed NASA to ask the National Research Council (NRC) to conduct a review of NASA’s suborbital activities, including balloons, sounding rockets, aircraft, and suborbital reusable rockets. The NRC released its report – Revitalizing NASA’s Suborbital Program: Advancing Science, Driving Innovation, and Developing Workforce – on Friday, championing a reinvigoration of the program.

It wasn’t so long ago that suborbital space-related research seemed to be on the verge of extinction. For decades, the space and earth science communities considered suborbital research such a fundamental aspect of NASA’s science programs that little effort was made to explain or defend the money spent for it. The abrupt cutbacks in NASA’s research and analysis (R&A) funding, which includes suborbital programs, proposed in the FY2007 budget set off alarm bells not only for the scientists who rely on the suborbital program for flying experiments but for others who recognize the role of the suborbital program as a training ground for future scientists, systems engineers, and project and program managers. Although NASA began to change course soon thereafter, the interest in justifying and reinvigorating the program took hold.

The NRC’s study committee, chaired by Steven Bohlen of Texas A&M, made five recommendations:

  • restore the suborbital program by reordering its priorities and increasing funding;
  • assign a “program lead” reporting to the head of the Science Mission Directorate to coordinate the suborbital program;
  • use the suborbital program as an integral part of on-the-job training and career development for engineers, experimental scientists, systems engineers, and project managers;
  • invest in stabilizing and advancing suborbital capabilities, including the development of ultra-long-duration super-pressure balloons; and
  • continue to monitor commercial suborbital space developments.

NASA’s current leadership seems particularly keen on the prospects for purchasing commercial flight services through its Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) program. NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said on February 18 that NASA is planning to spend $2.5 million in FY2010 for those services and is requesting $15 million per year for FY2011-2014.

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