Thursday, April 23, 2020

NASA assessing feasibility of using 'civil aircraft' for microgravity flight services

NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center is interested in obtaining information from companies to identify potential commercial capabilities for Microgravity Flight Services (MFS) to provide brief periods of near zero, partial gravity, and hyper-gravity conditions, collectively referred to here as microgravity, and associated capabilities for payload integration, safety, and airworthiness for various government research, technology development, and training missions. The agency announced the MFS effort in a Request For Information document released on Monday.

In the past, NASA successfully achieved this mission and fully met the listed requirements by use of a slightly modified C-9 (military variant of the DC-9 commercial transport) aircraft flown, operated, and maintained by NASA flight and ground crews. More recently, aircraft and flight services were contracted by NASA to provide these services and were operated in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Advisory Circular (AC) 00-1.1A, “Public Aircraft Operations”. Under this AC, NASA was responsible for determining the airworthiness and flight safety of the contractor’s microgravity aircraft operations and maintenance. Upon the completion of a NASA mission the aircraft was returned to its original civil status and returned to service under FAA airworthiness regulations. It was the responsibility of the contractor to ensure compliance with all FAA regulations when returning an aircraft to civil use.

The objective of each flight is to accurately simulate the gravitational field present on the Moon, Mars, or on an asteroid for research in areas such as fluid physics, combustion, material sciences, and life sciences, engineering development (for the International Space Station and other space hardware programs); for education; and for astronaut flight crew training.

The typical operation involves one or more self-contained experiments that are installed on the platform and activated in flight during the microgravity periods by a human operator. Data is recorded, and experiments are often photographed. Upon completion of the flight, the experiment is removed to be refurbished and prepared for future flights. The experiments are usually observed and/or tended during flights by a human experimenter.

NASA is assessing the feasibility of obtaining microgravity flight services on a purely commercial basis. In such an operation, the provider will operate as a “civil aircraft” and bears full responsibility for airworthiness, flight safety, and mission assurance, and these services do not require the Public Aircraft Operation (PAO – ref. AC 00-1.1A) requirement.

NASA will meet with contractors on May 5 during a Virtual Industry Day meeting to discuss the Mircogravity Flight Services effort and answer questions.

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