Liftoff of Falcon 9 with Dragon

This morning SpaceX successfully launched their latest Falcon 9 witth Dragon towards the international space station.  Following an aborted launch on Saturday that was traced back to a faulty value on engine 5 SpaceX successfully fixed, validated and prepared for launch this morning.

After the 9 minute ride to orbit which was performed flawlessly by Falcon 9 the Dragon spacecraft was successfully separated and deployed it’s Solar Array’s.  This was the first of many new systems on Dragon which will be tested during this mission.  During the press conference after launch NASA and SpaceX confirmed that Dragon has also performed it’s first burn procedure successfully as it starts it journey to catch up with the space station.

Over the next few days they have a lot more work to complete including the critical opening of the bay door that contains the probes and capture device used by the station’s robotic arm to grapple Dragon when it is close enough to the station.  Once Dragon arrives at the station on Thursday it will perform a number of procedures under the COTS Demo 2 mission plan to confirm that it can operate successfully near the station without cause danger to the station or it’s crew.  Upon successful completion of these objectives and with approval from NASA Dragon will then proceed to the COTS Demo 3 objectives which include berthing at the station.

The next few days are going to be very exciting for the Commercial Cargo program at NASA but incredible nerve racking as SpaceX execute all the tests needed for a successful mission.

3 Weeks and Counting to SpaceX Launch

In just over three weeks SpaceX is scheduled to launch their second and hopefully last COTS demo mission.  Today we are going to take a look in detail at the Dragon spacecraft and what a successful mission will mean for SpaceX and the US space industry in general.

Dragon

Designed and built by SpaceX the Dragon space capsule which has already flown one successful mission, upon completion of that mission SpaceX were the first commercial company to launch a spacecraft and successfully return it to earth.  While the initial missions for Dragon are for cargo, the craft has been designed from the beginning to allow crewed missions too.

The Dragon space capsule has a launch cargo capacity of 6,000 kg in cargo version and can support up to 7 crew in the crew version.  The payload capacity is split between pressurized and unpressurized as shown in the image on the right.  Once the craft reaches orbit the solar panels will deploy from the unpressurized section ( the blue area at the bottom ) and provide power to the craft.

Recently NASA performed a crew equipment interface test (CEIT), this allowed NASA astronaut Megan McArthur to work inside the pressurized part of the craft as part of her training for a future mission to the station.  SpaceX also completed their own Wet Dress rehearsal where the fully configured Falcon 9 with the Dragon capsule were taken out to the Launch pad, erected into launch position and fully fueled before the countdown proceeded to T-5 seconds.

Assuming there are no problems found during the Flight Readiness review on April 16th then SpaceX are scheduled to be launching on April 30th, once in orbit Dragon will complete a series of tests as it approaches the station culminating in a capture and docking.  For this mission Dragon is scheduled to stay at the station for around 30 days as the crew unload cargo and then place items due to be returned to earth.  Unlike the other cargo vehicles that visit the station Dragon will actually return all the way to earth initial in the pacific ocean, with plans to use the thrusters in the future to land back on land.

While the last demo flight for Dragon was well over a year ago now, SpaceX have not been sitting around doing nothing, they have had a lot of work to do to make sure Dragon operates correctly when approaching the Space Station and ensuring a save and successful mission.

In addition to that they have been very busy working on the crew version including testing the unique crew escape system which will be built into the side of the vehicle and will for the first time allow escape all the way to orbit, and can be used for powered landing on earth or other destinations.  SpaceX recently completed their first NASA Crew trail where 7 crew entered the vehicle and strapped in as they would for launch, as the pictures below show there is plenty of room inside.

I believe the future both for SpaceX and the US Launch industry looks very bright.  In additional to all these activities the company is also working on their Falcon Heavy launcher, working towards fully reusable launch vehicles, have a large manifest of launches already booked and have been profitable.  In addition Elon Musk recently said that he believes eventually they will be able to launch people to Mars for $500,000.

In the meantime all eyes will be on Kennedy Space Center for the rest of this month as SpaceX enter the final countdown towards their launch.

The information in this article is the personal opinion of the author and any future statements are based on information that is freely available on the internet.

Copyright Notices: All the images used in this article are the property of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and are also available on there website www.spacex.com.

More Delays

Last year Russia suffered from the lose of a Progress vehicle that resulted in several delays to manned launches and the possibility of having to de-man the Space Station which has been constantly occupied since November 2000. Thankfully they were able to resolve the problems and the station returned to a full crew before the end of the year. unfortunately that wasn’t the end of the problems as this year during vehicle certification one of the Soyuz vehicles used for manned launches was damaged beyond repair and again manned missions have been delayed. The delay this time is not as serious as another vehicle was almost complete.

Too add to this ESA announced today that the next Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) has been delayed to allow more time to ensure the mission will succeed.  At the present time they haven’t announced a new launch date but will have to ensure it doesn’t conflict with the other launches to the station.

With the US still reliant on Russia, Japan and ESA to launch cargo and crew to the station these delays show just how important it is that US companies quickly complete there work to bring US launch capabilities online. SpaceX are the closes to achieving this with a success Wet Dress Rehearsal yesterday for there COTS demo launch scheduled for April 20th.

Orbital are moving forward but announced that they are having problems completing there launch pad and will have to delay first launch of Antares.

Stratolaunch Systems

Today we return to our commercial space series as we look at a new player to the field.

Paul G. Allen and Burt Rutan announced yesterday that they were once again partnering to revolutionize the space launch industry.  Their last adventure led to the Ansari X Prize winning SpaceShipOne craft which achieved three sub-orbital flights to win the prize in 2004 and is the pre-cursor to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

The Stratolaunch System (SLS) will consist of four primary elements: a carrier aircraft, a multi-stage booster, a mating and integration system, and an orbital payload.  Initially the payloads will be unmanned but longer term after the system has been proven manned missions will also be included.  To achieve this SLS will be a partnership between Scaled Composites (carrier aircraft), SpaceX (multi-stage booster) and Dynetics (mating and integration system).

The carrier aircraft will be a much larger version of the WhiteKnightTwo craft used by Virgin with a wing-span of 385 feet and be powered by six 747 engines.  The craft will weight more than 1.2 million pounds, require a 12,000 foot runaway of takeoff and landing and will be the biggest aircraft ever built.

The multi-stage booster will be derived from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

The mating and integration system (MIS) will have the capacity to carrier up to 500,000 pounds.  As well as providing the interface point to the Booster.

Unfortunately the system will not be ready much before 2016 but again the future looks bright for the US launch industry in the future.  With the backing of Paul G. Allen there is little doubt that they will succeed.

More details are available on there web site including animations of the SLS.

 

 

 

 

 

Falling Behind

China are on the verge of surpassing the US for second place in the number of spacecraft launched in a single year.  Last year we were tied for second place and so far this year have one more mission than China but with no more planned US launches this year and at least one more for China could be tied again or risk losing out to them.

And the picture looks bleak until the commercial launchers come online.  SpaceX and Orbital are still in the testing phase and while both plan to be online with cargo flights next year to ISS there is no guarantee that this will happen.  The next demo flight for SpaceX has been delayed a number of times so far while SpaceX and NASA make sure everything is in place for the mission.  While we can understand the need to ensure the spacecraft will not pose a threat to the station it also makes us more reliant on Russia until these craft are up and running.

The crew situation is even worse, until SLS or Commercial Crew are online which at the moment looks to be 3-4 years away we are completely dependent on Russia to get to ISS and in the mean time China and making huge progress on there crew missions.  With the successful completion of the Shenzhou 8 mission which included two dockings to the Tiangong 1 space station, they are now planning a crewed mission to the station and have already selected the crew.

As I said a couple of weeks ago after the new NASA budget was announced we are cutting funding for commercial space and therefore risk falling further behind.  Having to pay Russia $63m per seat to get to the space station that we spend billions of dollars building is short sighted and the continued under-spending on commercial space is not going to rectify this any time soon.

NASA Budget

This week the new Budget was signed into law and NASA’s funding for the Commercial Crew development has been slashed.  So what does this mean for the future?

As we are currently looking at Commercial Space and the different teams who are involved it seems appropriate to review this further and see what real impact this has.

The final budget for Commercial Crew has come out at $406 million which is less then half the original $850 million requested.  The Senate and House appropriations committees passed legislation calling for commercial crew funding levels of $500 million and $312 million, respectively.  A conference committee between lawmakers agreed to a compromise budget at $406 million.

This has serious implications for the Commercial Crew Development program, NASA currently has four companies working towards milestones each which has specific financial rewards associated with them.  While the money for the current set of milestones is already secure the reduce budget does have implications for future milestones.  Either NASA will have to reduce the number of companies they are working with or slow down the pace of development.  Neither of these options is ideal as it results in the US and NASA not having a crew capability for longer.

Given that NASA are currently paying $63 million per flight to the space station and have at least 4 crew per year launching by 2015 NASA would have spent between $1 billion and $2 billion getting crew there.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden cautioned legislators that reducing the funding would likely add another 2 years to the program meaning that at the current rate another $500 million to $1 billion will be spent on Soyuz flights.

Several of the companies that are currently working towards Commercial Crew have stated that they can launch for less than the $63 million so this new budget makes no sense for the future of US access to space or the goal of reducing costs.

Personally I hope that none of the companies will stop the work they have begun on Commercial Crew and will step up and show the government that they can reduce the cost of access to space and once again give the US the access to space that it has given up at the present time.

 

 

Commercial Space – Part Six

Today we continue our look at Commercial Space with Boeing and there contribution to the CCDev/CCDev2 programs.

Boeing

Working with Bigelow the CST-100 will provide crew and cargo missions to the International Space Station.   The CST-100 was first announced by Robert Bigelow in June 2010, just last month NASA announced that Boeing had signed an agreement to use one of the Shuttle OPF buildings as there construction site for the CST modules.

Drawing on their expertise with the Apollo, Space Shuttle and ISS they have quickly demonstrated that they can deliver on the design and with the recent funding from NASA have several milestones that have to be achieved as they work towards being operational by 2015.  Clearly the partnership with Bigelow will benefit both companies;  as Boeing will have a second destination for CST and Bigelow will have a supplier for their stations.

Boeing have recently been conducting drop tests  of their test module to evaluate the design of the airbag cushioning system that will be deployed just before landing.  So far Boeing are the only company to use this design and will be interested to see how different the landing will be to some of the other modules.  I think overall SpaceX’s design seems to offer the best solution for landing but only time will tell as they continue to test and actual use the systems.

Boeing has designed CST to be compatible with Atlas V, Delta IV and Falcon 9 with Atlas V being the initial launch vehicle during testing.

At present there is no set date for when orbital testing will be performed.

Commercial Space – Part Five

Today we look at Blue Origin and there contribution to the CCDev/CCDev2 programs.

Blue Origin

Blue Origin are working on the New Shepherd sub-orbital craft to provide customer’s trip to the edge of space, allow a period of time of weightlessness before returning to the launch site.  Unlike Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo this will be a capsule based craft and will return using parachutes.

In the future they are will be launching the Biconic Space Vehicle for orbital operations.  This craft will use some of the components from New Shepherd as well as a re-usable first stage booster. From what I can determine neither of these have actually been built and I was not able to determine when they would be.  SpaceX recently announced that they are working on re-usable booster components to reduce costs but as yet have no date when they would even begin testing.

While Blue Origin are making progress they seem to be a long way behind some of the other players in the CCDev/CCDev2 arena and while coming later to the industry shouldn’t hurt them too much as we need more competition they will have a lot more to prove at that point to catch up.

Commercial Space – Part Four

Now we move onto the NASA Commercial Crew Development (CCDev/CCDev2) providers.

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC)

SNC are currently working on the Dream Chaser spacecraft, designed to lift off on top a man-rated launcher with Delta-V as the current preferred booster.  The craft is designed to transport up to seven astronauts as well as cargo.  Exact weight’s are not currently available.

Artist's illustration of the Dream Chaser crew transportation vehicle docked to the ISS. Source: Sierra Nevada Space Systems 2010

The ship will dock with the space station and then glide back to a landing once the mission is complete. Due to it’s design it should be able to land at any commercial airstrip and unlike the Space Shuttle it’s reaction control system uses ethanol and therefore can be handled immediately after landing.

Dream Chaser has several other advantages over the shuttle, first it is designed to last as long as 210 days in space, where as the shuttle only allowed a couple of weeks.  Second the heat shield is made up of ablative tiles ( created by NASA ) which can be replaced in large groups and don’t need to be replaced as often.

As with the COTS program CCDev and CCDev2 are milestone driven programs, SNC have recently announced that they have achieved several of the early milestones and are working towards drop tests using Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft in 2012.

With the creation of the CCDev/CCDev2 programs the future for spaceflight is very exciting and will only result in cheaper missions for everyone.

Commercial Space – Part Three

As we continue our look at the Commercial Space Industry we turn out focus on Bigelow Aerospace.

Bigelow Aerospace

Unlike SpaceX and Orbital, Bigelow is focusing on creating Orbital Space Stations using inflatable technologies to drastically increase the usable space available once on orbit.

So far they have launched the Genesis 1 and 2 modules and from a recently email conversation with Bigelow have determined that both are still operating in orbit today.

They are currently working on the BA330 Station, each will have roughly 330 cubic meters of internal space and multiple modules can be linked together to provide larger complexes.

As Bigelow are concentrating on the development of Space Stations not launch vehicles they do not currently have a way of getting crew to the stations.  They have recently been linked with Boeing who are working on the CST100 crew vehicle ( we will discuss this soon ).