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 ).

 

Commercial Space – Part Two

Today we continue our look at the Commercial Space Industry and what Orbital Sciences Corporation has to offer.

Orbital Sciences Corporation

Orbital is not a new comer to the Space Launch business having been started in 1982 and completed 62 space launch missions since.  They currently offer the air launched Pegasus rocket, the ground launched Taurus and Minotaur, all of which are Solid Fuel rockets.

They are in the process of creating the Taurus II rocket which will be a combination of Solid and Liquid fueled stages and Cygnus space capsule as part of the NASA COTS program.

Orbital are due to conduct their first test launch of Taurus II early next year and barring any problems Cygnus be middle of 2012.

I have no doubt that they will be successful with the Taurus II and look forward to the benefits having multiple providers will offer NASA and commercial industry in the future.

Commercial Space – Part One cont.

This morning during the press conference for the Soyuz docking Bill Gerstenmaier NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations confirmed that SpaceX had provided them with the final Dragon Spacecraft software which will be used for orbital operations.  NASA are now reviewing the software and Bill estimated that they should be able to set an actual launch date for the next demo mission in about a month.

The reason the test has been delayed several times is because NASA, the Russian Space Agency, SpaceX and the other partners need to be 100% sure that Dragon will not pose any problems to the Space Station when it approaches.  As with any project these things can take time and it is better to delay the test and be sure everything is working as needed than rush it and end up causing bigger problems.

NASA made sure that they wouldn’t need to rush the Commercial Resupply Services (CSR) by taking up over a years worth of supplies on the last shuttle launch.

Commercial Space – Part One

Yesterday I mentioned the SpaceX Falcon Heavy as my preferred launch vehicle for the Mars Rover mission.  I have been watching with increased interested the development of the commercial launch business as companies like SpaceX, Orbital and others progress towards supplying the Space Station and offering launch capabilities to the broader industry.

SpaceX

At the moment SpaceX have made the most progress with a new rocket but they have only had a few launches so how can we say that?

If you look at what they have achieved since they started in 2002 then it is hard not to be impressed.  They started off with the Falcon 1 which has lunched 5 times so far and while the first three mission ended in failure the last two where successful and put SpaceX on the map with the first privately funded liquid fueled rocket to reach orbit.

Since then the main focus has been on the creation of the Falcon 9 vehicle and the Dragon Space Capsule, again SpaceX has delivered so far, of the two Falcon 9 launches attempted so far both have been successful.  On the second SpaceX achieved another first by launching their Dragon space capsule and successfully returning to earth becoming the first commercial company to do it.

Early next year SpaceX will once again launch Dragon this time on a mission to the Space Station, this is the second test missions as part of the NASA Commercial Orbital Transport Services (COTS) program.  Once they have demonstrated the ability to successfully launch Dragon to the space station and dock they will then begin contracted deliveries to the Space Station.

Recently SpaceX have made two other announcements regarding the future of the Falcon Rockets.  First they announced the creation of the Falcon Heavy which will have the largest payload capacity of any rocket currently in use today.  Second they announced plans to start testing return to launch site abilities for the first and second stages of the rocket which if they can achieve it successfully will drastically reduce the cost of launching to space.

All in all I believe SpaceX has a great future and their success will only benefit the America Space industry and start to lower the costs of getting into space for everyone.

Tomorrow we continue with Orbital and take a look at their offering in the Commercial Space Arena.