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.

Latest News from ISS

Today Mike Suffredini, the Manager of the International Space Station made several announcements today during a teleconference aired live on NASA’s web site.  Here is a summary of them.

Computer Hardware/Software Upgrade

Mike confirmed today that they had just completed a comprehensive upgrade of the Computer Software and Hardware used to control the space station systems.  These upgrades included process and memory upgrades as well as changes to the software to utilize the new hardware.  The upgrades where performed by the crew over the last couple of months and where completed after the docking of the latest Progress vessel last weekend.

Soyuz mishap during testing and delay’s to next scheduled launch

During testing of the next Soyuz crew vehicle the craft was exposed to significantly higher pressures than planned which resulted in significant damage to the craft, after investigation it was deemed unusable for flight.  As a result of this failure the next flight to the station has been delayed until May, similarly to ensure that station is only reduced to a three man crew for two weeks the return of Dan Burbank, Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin has been moved to the end of April.  These delays will also impact the other crew rotations this year but they expect to be back to normal by the end of the year.

The Russians have created a commission to look into what happened and what changes are needed to ensure this doesn’t happen again.  Mike expressed confidence that they would quick identify the cause and correct it.

Dragon Tentatively Scheduled for March 20th Mission

Mike also announced that they were tentatively looked at March 20th for the SpaceX Dragon launch to the space station, however he did explain that this was still a very tight scheduled and felt that it may end up being in early April.  Mike explained that during testing a number of issues had been found and all of them had to be addressed before SpaceX would be allowed to fly.

When asked about impact on station Mike explained that they still had plenty of margin with what was on the station into 2013 and if it because necessary they would look to utilize Progress and other vehicles to transport payload until Commercial deliveries where ready.  They were not going to rush this and none of the partners would be flying until all parties where confident that they were ready.

Mike also explained that Orbital were addressing issues and believed that there first launch would slip, he wasn’t able to say by how much and didn’t go into details about what issues where being addressed.

More Soyuz Seats

During Q&A after the announcements Mike was asked about the potential of having to buy more seats on Soyuz due to the reduced funding for Commercial Crew, he explained that they were looking into the impact of this and working with the partners to determine when they believed they would be ready to fly.  Once they had that information they would then know what if any additional seats where needed after the end of the current contract.  Negotiations for these if needed would have to start in 2013 but only after the necessary legal blocks where handled, they have already started the process of dealing with these so that if needed they could proceed with the negotiations if needed.

The full teleconference can be heard here.

And then there were six

This morning Oleg Kononenko, Andre Kuipers and Don Pettit successfully launched from Kazakhstan aboard their Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft heading to the space station to complete the full Expedition 30 crew and once again return the station to a six man crew.

Despite the bitter cold weather, the crew launched on time and will now spend two days chasing the station before the automated docking to the Rassvet module.  As with all the Soyuz craft the crew will have the ability to manually dock if needed.

Oleg Kononenko
Oleg Kononenko, 47, will serve as a flight engineer for Expedition 30 and commander for Expedition 31. He first flew as a Soyuz and International Space Station commander for the Expedition 17 crew in 2008. He also performed two spacewalks during the increment, acquiring more than 12 hours of extravehicular experience.

Andre Kuipers
European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers, 58, will return to space for his second spaceflight mission. A medical doctor, he flew aboard the Soyuz spacecraft in 2004 as part of the DELTA mission. During the flight, he performed 21 science experiments. He will serve as a flight engineer for this mission.

Donald Pettit
NASA astronaut Donald Pettit, 56, holds a doctorate in chemical engineering,
will be embarking on his third spaceflight and second long-duration mission.
He previously served as flight engineer during Expedition 6 in 2002 and 2003 and
as mission specialist on STS-126 in 2008. He will again serve as flight engineer during
the upcoming mission.

Once on the space station the crew will be running a number of scientific experiments as well as all the maintenance tasks needed to keep the station operating at peak efficiency. There are no planned U.S. spacewalks during this Expedition but the crew is always ready should the need occur to perform one.  With the recently announced SpaceX dragon flight in February 2012 the Expedition 30 crew will be the first to receive a spacecraft from a commercial company.

The full overview of the science being performed by the crew can be found here.

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 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.