Latest in the Flight Opportunities Program

NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program


    Xaero vehicle on launchpad Xaero vehicle on launchpad.
    Credit: Masten Space Systems
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    Small Balloon System Small Balloon System.
    Credit: Near Space Corporation
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    The Flight Opportunities Program is administered through the agency's Office of the Chief Technologist. It is part of the OCT's Space Technology Program initiative, designed to create multiple paths through which innovative technologies may be matured from concept to flight. These technologies are expected to benefit NASA, other government entities, commerce, and the public. The FOP is part of the OCT's Cross-Cutting Capability Demonstration Division, which facilitates progress of space technologies toward flight readiness status through testing in space-relevant environments.

    The FOP facilitates low-cost access to suborbital environments for a broad range of innovators as a means of advancing space technology development and supporting the evolving entrepreneurial commercial space industry. The program will create flight opportunities, for existing research payloads on commercial vehicles, that will provide access to reduced-gravity, high-altitude monitoring of space and Earth, and, eventually, methods for environmental sampling and secondary launch of nanosats to orbit. Among NASA's key goals for the program is regular, frequent and predictable access to near-space at a reasonable cost with easy recovery of intact payloads.

    The Flight Opportunities Program combined both the Facilitated Access to the Space environment for Technology, or FAST, and the CRuSR - Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research - efforts, previously managed through the Innovative Partnership Program Office. The integration of these efforts allows for greater program management alignment and provides the technology community access to the microgravity environment via multiple platforms.

    Under contract to NASA, providers of commercial suborbital reusable launch vehicles, or sRLVs, will support commercial payload integration and suborbital space transportation services via 3-4 minute periods of microgravity or other selectable levels of low gravity for technology development and related research. Several emerging sRLVs have been competitively selected to fly semi-automated and automated payloads on both piloted and robotic flights. Simulated high-quality microgravity will be provided at the top of a single, long parabolic trajectory that, after temporary engine shut-off, will reach the edge of space. These vehicles will return to Earth within an hour of launch via powered flight designed to keep hypergravity loads to a minimum.

    The commercial parabolic flights will test technologies in seconds-long periods of microgravity and, as with sRLVs, at selectable low-gravity levels, such as those on the moon or Mars. The test bed, a modified commercial aircraft with an open, padded interior, flies a series of short parabolic trajectories to repeatedly simulate the desired gravity levels.

    Payload Proposal Selection and Flights

    Through the FOP, proposals are solicited and selected in a collaborative process that allows research payloads to "fly early, fly often and fly safely." For selected payloads, the FOP funds initial and repeat flights, as proposed or as warranted. The parabolic flight campaigns are flown out of Ellington Air Force Base in Houston. The majority of the suborbital initial launches will be from the Mojave Air and Spaceport, Mojave, Calif., and the new Spaceport America facility near Las Cruces, N.M.

    Technology payload proposals are being sought from many sources, including NASA, other government agencies, academia, private industry, and international entities collaborating with U.S. partners. Proposal selection criteria include assessments of: applicability to OCT high-priority technology areas; the opportunity for technology risk reduction; the technology and payload readiness level for a flight demonstration; and the substance of the proposing team's past experience in delivering a safe payload for flight.

    Commercial Flight Service Providers

    In addition to the parabolic flights on a modified commercial aircraft operated by Zero-G Corp., plans currently call for the FOP to fund flights on six suborbital, reusable commercial flight platforms and one high-altitude balloon platform as listed:
    - Armadillo Aerospace, Heath, Texas
    - Near Space Corp., Tillamook, Ore.
    - Masten Space Systems, Mojave
    - Up Aerospace, Highlands Ranch, Colo.
    - Virgin Galactic, Mojave
    - Whittinghill Aerospace, Camarillo, Calif.
    - XCOR, Mojave

    These commercial flight providers will also be funded to provide, as needed, commercial payload integration and related ground-based support services for NASA-sponsored payloads.

    FOP Future Funding Plans for Payload Development
    Based on the responses received to a Request For Information issued by the OCT, the FOP will fund technology development for three flight payload areas: payloads to develop and demonstrate high-priority space technologies; flight vehicle enhancement for payload accommodations; and reusable onboard research facilities. Funding from the FOP will be provided in fiscal year 2012 via a solicitation within another OCT division that develops technology at lower readiness levels. This will provide additional flight-ready payloads for the FOP mission.

    Recent Activities & Accomplishments
    • Parabolic campaigns were flown in July, August and September 2011, with good success resulting from each of the 18 payloads. The FOP team partnered with the experienced JSC Reduced Gravity Office team to streamline the payload flow and flight readiness review process at the Ellington ground operations center. Valuable lessons were learned that will improve future parabolic campaigns and will have a positive influence on early suborbital flights, as well.

    • A suborbital vehicle-developed adjustable Payload Rack was developed for use in procuring, testing and integration of two small, autonomous payloads for flight-related compatibility assessments with an evolving Masten sRLV. One payload is a commercial flight vehicle environmental monitoring and recording system, and the other a commercial GPS-linked vehicle location sensing and broadcast system provided by the FAA.

    • The FOP team coordinated solicitation, evaluation and selection of five new payloads for early suborbital flights and five new payloads for parabolic flights. These campaigns are projected for March/April 2012. An additional NASA solicitation is currently in development and potential research partners are encouraged to access the FOP site (see below) to express interest in being kept abreast of this opportunity.
    Online References


  • image of FAST plane


    The Facilitated Access to the Space Environment for Technology Development and Training (FAST) provides opportunities for emerging technologies to perform testing in the space environment.