Spaceflight Companies Promised to Do Science—So How’s It Going?

“We provide our clients with the guidance and insights they need to ensure their research is rigorous, well-designed, and impactful for the broader scientific community – helping advance the needle in microgravity research,” she wrote.

Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s director of research activities, says analysis for her projects is also ongoing. “We’ve flown payloads on every one of our flights,” says Bandla, who conducted some on-flight experiments with Richard Branson, the company’s founder, in July 2021. The company gives researchers some flexibility in the types of experiments that can be carried on board, Bandla says, and they can tweak those projects for future flights if the first attempt doesn’t go as planned.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have benefited from NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which helps academic researchers develop technology to test with commercial flight providers at near zero-G. This program funded many of the payloads flown to date.

(SpaceX did not respond to inquiries from WIRED, and a Blue Origin representative declined to comment.)

While these projects involve some agency funding, “a lot of the money for these flights comes from their tickets and not from scientific contracts,” says Ariel Ekblaw, founder and director of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative. However, she emphasizes that they are an opportunity to move projects forward relatively quickly. For example, her team’s automated Tesserae experiment flew aboard Ax-1 and tested how robotic tiles could self-connect into a structure — a precursor to self-assembling construction in space.

Still, private spaceflights have garnered far more attention from their celebrity clients than their scientific payloads. Jordan Bimm, a University of Chicago space historian, worries the science will be sold as a token add-on in an experience that mostly sells prestige and spectacular panoramic views. “It gives a scientific aura to the mission and the participants when they return to Earth,” he says, fulfilling the cultural expectations that associate space with science.

Donoviel believes that science will become a higher priority for these companies once they have demonstrated the commercial viability and technological capabilities of the private space industry. “Honestly, with a lot of these companies, the last thing they think about is research. But they come by and at some point it becomes important to them,” she says.

And while few people can afford the six-figure cost of seats on suborbital excursions today, price tags could come down over the next decade, potentially allowing researchers to fly with the crew and conduct their own experiments — something that’s never been done before was actually done before . Next spring, Bandla says, Virgin Galactic will do just that. The Italian Air Force will send a researcher to test how changes in gravity affect a person’s heart and cognitive abilities. (Starting a researcher to conduct their own experiments on board costs $600,000, she says.) Ekblaw, for example, expects to eventually send her graduate students into space once prices continue to fall.

Donoviel, Mason and their colleagues have already started working on some of next year’s private missions to continue collecting health and genomic data in space. Ax-2 will carry an investor and racer, as well as two Saudi Arabian passengers, to the ISS in the spring. And Isaacman, a pilot, and two SpaceX engineers plan to fly SpaceX’s Polaris Dawn in March. This mission will include 38 experiments, including ones focused on how weightlessness affects vision and how the body processes drugs in orbit, Sarah Grover, a spokeswoman for the Polaris program not affiliated with SpaceX, wrote in an email to WIRED. “The goal is to encourage ongoing, open, and inclusive research that will help improve life here on Earth and future long-term human spaceflight,” she wrote.

The four companies currently conducting commercial space travel offer unique research opportunities for scientists – and varying levels of transparency when it comes to sharing that data. But that variation may be similar to that seen in the private airline industry, Mason says. “SpaceX is different from Axiom, which is different from Blue Origin. It’s like different airlines that take you from one place to another, but they do it with different perks, different snacks, and different styles.”

https://www.wired.com/story/spaceflight-companies-promised-to-do-science-so-hows-it-going/ Spaceflight Companies Promised to Do Science—So How’s It Going?

Zack Zwiezen

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