2011 IR&D Annual Report

Capability Development and Demonstration for Next-Generation Suborbital Research, 15-R8115

Principal Investigator
S. Alan Stern

Inclusive Dates:  01/01/10 – Current

Background — Research applications for new-generation suborbital vehicles include, but are not limited to, microgravity sciences, space life sciences, Earth and space sciences, land use, education and public outreach (EPO), technology development and demonstration/space systems development, and demonstrations (including TRL raising). The primary research advantages of these vehicles include better launch affordability compared to conventional sounding rockets, capability for human operator presence, better experiment affordability, more frequent access to the space environment, gentler ascent and entry compared to sounding rockets, extended periods of turbulence-free microgravity, and increased time in the 250,000 to 400,000 ft (80 to 120 km) region of the atmosphere (the "Ignorosphere").

Approach — SwRI's long-term business interests in these vehicles are:

  • To exploit them for planetary, microgravity, aeronomical and auroral research.

  • To provide research-related common systems (flight computers, data recording racks, etc.) and payload integration services to NASA and/or vehicle providers.

  • To provide instrumentation, payload specialists and flight project expertise to research groups, both domestic and overseas, working in this area.

Therefore the overarching objective for this project is to put SwRI in the lead of the burgeoning suborbital research field using next-generation, manned vehicles by becoming one of the first, and quite possibly the first, organization to fly payloads with research payload specialists on these vehicles. This will open up to SwRI a series of new business opportunities including new funded research projects, new hardware development projects, ground and flight system task order contracts associated with next-generation suborbital work, and the provision of payload specialists for next-generation suborbital work.

Figure 1. A sign in New York's Times Square announces the agreement between SwRI and XCOR Aerospace.
Figure 1. A sign in New York's Times Square announces the agreement between SwRI and XCOR Aerospace.


  • Completed and announced flight reservation agreements with Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace for a total of nine seat launches.

  • Completed a second set of F-104 training flights with focused, in-flight investigations to (1) evaluate the wearability and function of the AccuTracker II biomedical harness with standard crew flight suits and life support equipment during typical g-loads, and (2) test the design concept for the BORE microgravity experiment during zero-g parabolas.

  • Completed a zero-g training flight and team exercises to refamiliarize/practice personal mobility and experiment handling operations in zero-g conditions.

  • Made technical presentations on the SwRI Suborbital Program and SwRI's three suborbital experiments at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (Orlando, FL).

  • Completed construction of the BORE microgravity experiment.

  • Passed vibration testing of the Blue Origin configuration of the BORE microgravity experiment.

  • Continued refurbishment and testing and early calibration of SWUIS-A.

  • Made invited oral presentations on the SwRI Suborbital Program at Spacefest III (Tucson, Az.), to a University of Colorado class, and at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

  • Completed FAA Class II and Class I medicals for each SwRI payload specialist to maintain expected suborbital flight medical qualification standards.

  • Designed and released the SwRI payload specialist team mission patch with press release.

  • Initiated discussions with David Clark Company and NASTAR on a collaborative effort to test/evaluate the CHAPS pressure suit under launch g-loads.

  • Made flight assignments for personnel and experiments.

  • Completed space suit familiarization training at the Dave Clark company.

  • Created a payload specialist experiment training plan.

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Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI®), headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, is a multidisciplinary, independent, nonprofit, applied engineering and physical sciences research and development organization with 9 technical divisions.