NASA Throws Cash at Suborbital Flight, Piggybacking on Space Tourism

NASA's previous solicitations for proposals have covered advanced aerospace and space-bound technologies, as well as cheap, quiet future commercial jets. The latest proposal, from the Flight Opportunities Program under the Office of the Chief Technologist, is a little different: It's all about getting technology and test experiments into microgravity on the cheap, by shooting them into sub-orbital space at about 60 miles up rather than into orbit.

The Flight Opportunities program is specifically designed to boost the development of the new commercial space business in the U.S., which is being led by consumer-carrying companies such as Virgin Galactic and bigger business efforts like SpaceX. Virgin, along with a number of still rather mysterious companies, like Jeff Bezo's Blue Origin, is aiming at flying paying passengers into suborbital space inside a handful of years--and it seems this new NASA proposal is aimed squarely at the spacecraft of these companies.

The benefits of having frequent, reliable, low-cost access to microgravity via these third parties are obvious for NASA--it can test and re-test various technological tricks and fixes on a much more frequent and cheap basis than having to launch its own expensive sounding rockets. The quick turnaround times between commercial flights could even allow for near real-time fixes and adjustments to be made.