2015 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, and space systems development and demonstrations (including TRL raising). The primary research advantages of these vehicles include more frequent access to the space environment, lower launch cost compared to conventional sounding rockets, capability for human operator presence, better experiment affordability, 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 — Our long-term business interests in these vehicles are:

  • To exploit them for planetary, astronomical, 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.
  • And 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 funded research and hardware development projects, ground and flight system task-order contracts associated with next-generation suborbital work, and providing payload specialists for next-generation suborbital work.

Accomplishments — Flight experiments were selected (SWUIS-A for remote sensing; JSC biomed harnesses for life science work; BORE [Box of Rocks Experiment] for microgravity research). We secured personnel for SWUIS-A refurbishment, checkout, and calibration, and began refurbishment of the instrument. We completed the design and initiated construction of the BORE microgravity experiment. We received and test fitted a JSC biomed hardness that forms the basis of one of our three suborbital flight investigations. We initiated discussions with XCOR, Virgin Galactic, and Space Adventures regarding flight assignments, terms, and conditions on their suborbital vehicles. We constructed a flight requirements matrix to determine which flight providers are suitable for which of our experiments.

Figure 1: PI Stern and Co-I Durda completed pressure suit testing and centrifuge evaluation in Nov 2011
Figure 1: PI Stern and Co-I Durda completed pressure suit testing and centrifuge evaluation in Nov 2011.
Figure 2: The SWUIS experiment was upgraded and re-calibrated during laboratory and field ops in Aug/Sep 2012.
Figure 2: The SWUIS experiment was upgraded and re-calibrated during laboratory and field ops in Aug/Sep 2012.

We 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 our BORE microgravity experiment during zero-g parabolas. We completed a zero-g training flight that included initial zero-g training and team exercises to refamiliarize/practice personal mobility and experiment handling operations in zero-g conditions.

We completed construction of the BORE microgravity experiment. The Blue Origin configuration of the BORE microgravity experiment successfully passed vibration testing. FAA Class II and Class I medicals for each SwRI payload specialist were completed in order to maintain expected suborbital flight medical qualification standards.

We designed the SwRI Payload Specialist Team mission patch, and initiated discussions with two companies on a collaborative effort to test/evaluate a pressure suit under launch g-loads. We completed pressure suit familiarization training and undertook centrifuge training to test/evaluate the pressure suit under launch g-loads.

We completed an upgrade and re-calibration of the SWUIS experiment for flight, and initiated planning for high altitude (75,000 ft) flight training in F-104 and F-18 aircraft. Additionally, we negotiated early flight test phase spaceflights with XCOR, and continued aerobatic jet aircraft training. We completed flight data requirements and collection plans for each suborbital experiment.

We requested and received flight integration requirements documents and initiated work to complete these documents, and clarified crew training requirements with both XCOR and VG.

We checked out all three of our flight experiments after over a year in storage. We built BORE and SWUIS experiment flight boxes and developed flight checklists, conducted a successful test of both experiments, and validated checklists in zero-gravity parabolic aircraft flights.

A two-year, no-cost extension was approved for this project in December 2014, extending the project to January 1, 2017. We conducted annual battery change for the biomonitor flight experiment (required annual maintenance to prevent loss of programmed settings).

We are preparing the BORE payload for flight aboard the Blue Origin suborbital vehicle in early spring 2016 (including cleaning and reconfiguring internal parts after the November 2013 zero-g test flight, reconfiguring for new data cameras provided by Blue Origin, reprogramming and testing the new flight software after delivery from Blue Origin of a new Benchtop Payload Controller, etc.).

The project is presently in a dormant state to conserve funds while waiting for the Virgin Galactic and XCOR vehicles to enter operational service in 2016/2017, at which time payload integration will commence and flight training will be completed.

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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.