Today I flew to Philadelphia with my graduate student, Akbar Whizin, in preparation for a two-day course on suborbital spaceflight at the NASTAR center. With at least two companies readying commercial suborbital rockets to carry paying passengers to the lower limits of outer space, there is increased interest in the uses of these vehicles for science and education and not just high-priced sightseeing. NASA has long had a vigorous program of experimentation in suborbital sounding rockets. These new vehicles may soon find a place as laboratories for scientists and students who need quick and easy access to either the upper reaches of the atmosphere or a few precious minutes of high quality microgravity.
My own scientific interest in these vehicles lies in the study of the collisional behavior of small objects and aggregates of objects at low impact speeds. I’ve had one such experiment fly twice on the space shuttle and a similar experiment has flown several times on parabolic airplane flights. These experiments simulate in various ways the collisions that were common in the early stages of the formation of the solar system and are currently taking place in Saturn’s rings (and the rings of the other planets). It is not possible to perform experiments on these kinds of collisions without a microgravity environment. A few seconds of microgravity can be achieved in a drop tower, and 10-15 seconds of a relatively uneven low-gravity environment can be obtained on parabolic airplane flights. For many experiments a longer, more stable microgravity environment is needed.
Virgin Galactic has unveiled the first of its passenger-carrying suborbital crafts, the VSS Enterprise. Blue Origin has selected my experiment and two others to fly on a test flight of their New Shepard suborbital rocket. Other companies are developing rockets for passengers and some just for payloads. Someday soon, scientists may be flying alongside their experiments on these rockets, reacting to the performance and making real time adjustments to the operation of the experiment. And so I find myself getting ready to undergo two days of “astronaut boot camp” at the NASTAR center. Tomorrow features some hypoxia training and time in a chamber simulating high altitudes (low atmospheric pressure). Wednesday will be a full simulation of a flight on the VSS Enterprise. The final frontier awaits.