My Views on Commercial Space

Today during a twitter conversation about the new SpaceX Texas Spaceport one of the people in the discussion send the following tweet.

This got me thinking as personally I fully believe in Commercial Space as being the key to the future of human access to space. The reason I am writing this post is to share my perspective Commercial Space.

Yes during the twitter conversation it could be viewed that I was downplaying Commercial Space, however that really wasn’t the case, I was basing the information on what I had learned this week from Garrett Reisman of SpaceX who during a Q&A session after his presentation at the NASA FISO forum stated that the SpaceX Texas Spaceport would not be used for crewed missions. This was because at present the only customer for Commercial Crew is NASA and to get to the space station from Texas would have required flying over populate land which is not allowed under FAA rules.

Commercial Crew

It is my hope that at least two companies are selected under the up coming CCtCap awards which are due to be announced any time now.  Yes I would love SpaceX to be one of those awarded not only because I am a fan of SpaceX but also because currently Boeing and Sierra Nevada plan to use the Atlas 5 launcher which uses the RD-180 Russian engine, although both have said that they could fly on Falcon 9 too.

In an ideal scenario all three companies would be funded to give the US a huge advantage over the rest of the world when it comes to launching crew to orbit, longer term it is my hope that future missions for NASA would use commercial crew for missions especially to LEO and even as far as the moon.  Eventually there would be no need for NASA to have there own launcher and instead could focus there money on science and exploration.

Commercial Stations

In an article that I plan to publish next month I talk a lot more about this, personally I believe that any successor to the International Space Station (ISS) should be derived from commercially available platforms like the Bigelow inflatable modules or others yet to come.  Smaller versions of these inflatable modules could be used to provide crew quarters for longer distance missions.

Bigelow are currently planning to launch at least one of their BA-330 module in 2017 presumably once there is at least one Commercial Crew provider available.  Once there modules are in space and depending on their orbit it could well be that crew could be launched from Texas or even from California.

Space Resource provisioning

For us to be successful in space we need to establish a reliable way of supplying missions from space itself, this would reduce the amount of cargo/fuel that needs to be launched allowing larger payloads, pair that with inflatable spacecraft then longer distance missions could be launched where only the supplies that cannot be sourced in space need to be included.

So why am I playing down the potential

That was never my intention, however I can certainly see from what was said recently that it could be viewed that way, and will certainly be more careful how I say things in future.

I fully believe that the only viable solution to human’s permanent presence in space is through commercial companies.  I closely follow the Commercial Crew programs from Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX, as well as what is happening with Bigelow and any other companies that are trying to future the use of space.

The true cost of getting the US back to manned flight

To date we have seen a lot of talk about the cost of the SLS program, however that isn’t the only cost that has been incurred by the US tax payer since the announcement that the Space Shuttle was to be retired. This article will look at everything that has happened since then and how much has been spent, or remains to be spent based on current budgets before the US has manned flights again.

First we will look at NASA’s progress towards manned flight, then we will look at the Commercial sector.

NASA

In early 2003 President George W. Bush announced the retirement of the Space Shuttle during his Vision for Space Exploration initiative, which also called for the development of a new launch system and manned capsule capable of launching crew to the International Space Station and beyond. The program was known as the Constellation (CxP) program and consisted of two launch vehicles Ares I and Ares V, ohe crewed capsule Orion and a lander Altair. Work on CxP progressed to the point where an Ares I rocket was launched in Oct 2009, however shortly after President Barack Obama took office the program was cancelled and instead NASA was refocused on the Space Launch System.

Total cost of CxP: $9 billion estimated in 2010

In 2010 President Barack Obama cancelled the Constellation program and launched the Space Launch System (SLS) plan that called for a single launcher with different capacities from 70mt to 130mt and a human rated capsule which would allow 2-6 crew members to be travel to space.  With this new goal set NASA began working on the SLS and just this week passed the KDP-C  which takes the SLS from design phase to manufacture.  However first flight is still targeted to be somewhere between 12/2017 and 11/2018 depending if everything is ready, with only a 70% confidence of meeting that target.

We also need to take into account the cost of building the crew vehicle that will be launched on SLS, this is a key part of the goal.  There have been a number of tests performed so far on different versions of the Orion module with the first test flight using a Delta IV heavy currently scheduled for later this year 12/2014.

And finally we cannot forget that to launch this massive new rocket the ground support systems will also need to be upgraded, the VAB hasn’t been used for such a large vehicle since the last Saturn 5 launch, in addition the launch pad needs to be upgraded to handle the larger rocket.

Estimated cost of SLS: $7 billion by launch in 11/2018
Estimated cost of Orion: $10 billion
Estimated cost of Ground Systems: $3 billion

Commercial Providers

Due to NASA focus on the a large capacity system that would most likely to too costly and too late for International Space Station crew missions NASA was also tasked with out-sourcing ISS Cargo and Crew missions to commercial companies.  This has been successfully completed with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences providing multiple missions already and contracted for many more.  For crew the process is still on-going with three companies currently working under CCiCap agreements, this will soon be narrowed down to one or two companies under the new CCtCap agreements which is due to be announced any time.

Total cost of Commercial Cargo Dev for NASA: $800 million

Total allocated fund for Commercial Crew Dev (so far) for NASA: $1.2 billion based on budget requests thru 2013 budget. *

* For Commercial Crew the money is only paid out upon reaching pre-defined milestones so while this amount has been allocated not all has been paid out yet.

Summary

So in summary NASA has spent $800m helping bring Commercial cargo availability back to the US, that doesn’t include the $3.4b it has on contract with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for actual cargo which isn’t relevant for this article.

They have so far spent $1.2b helping bring Commercial crew availability back to the US and assuming there are not any significant issues with whoever is selected to move forward in CCtCap should have the capacity to launch crew in the next two years.

And finally they will have spent an estimated $16b on the Rocket, $10b on Orion and $3b on upgrades to the ground system to have there own launch capability back.  If the first SLS does finally launch in late 2017 or sometime in 2018 then NASA would have launched just three rockets in 12 or 13 years (one a commercial rocket carrying the first test Orion), at a cost of $9.6b each.  This cost doesn’t actually include the first crewed flight with SLS as we currently don’t have enough data to truly calculate the total, however some have estimated that the total cost by first crewed flight could be anywhere from $32-37b.

While we understand developing a new rocket isn’t a cheap project, it is also clear based on the numbers above the both SpaceX and Orbital were able to bring new rockets to the table Falcon 9 and Antares for far less and in much shorter time-frames.

We also have three viable Commercial Crew vehicles in development each of which has a larger crew capacity and at least two of which could be flying most likely before the first SLS ever leaves the ground.  **

The other factor that we need to consider is the 2016 Presidential Election, we already know that there will be a new president starting in 2017 and it is quite possible that whoever is elected will look at the amount of money spent on SLS and want changes made anywhere from cancelling the whole program to re-purposing it which could cause costly delays.

** Based on two being awarded CCtCap contracts, although SpaceX has already stated that they would try to continue development of Dragon V2 even if they don’t get an award as it is key to their long term goals of sending people to Mars.

The opinions in this article are my own, the information on costs is 
publicly available from multiple sources on the internet.

 

SLS Launch Date slips but not really

Today NASA announced they had completed the Key Decision Point C (KDP-C) review of the new Space Launch System their heavy launch rocket.  With this milestone meet they can now proceed with the manufacturing of the actual flight hardware, while also performing reviews of the Ground Support systems and the Orion payload.

As a result of the review NASA also announced that the likely launch date for SLS would be no later than November 2018 a slip of almost nine months from the last announced date of December 2017, however during the conference call by NASA they stated that this really wasn’t a slip!!!  They also stated that they were only 70% confident of making that date or meeting the $7 billion budget that was announced.  Later in the call they stated that they may still make the December 2017 date.

During the Q&A afterwards a number of questions were asked specifically about the future of SLS after the currently manifested flights, there were no real details available beyond the EM-1 and EM-2 flights.  They did say that they would like to continue the cadence of one flight every two years.

Below is the official release from NASA on the KDP-C milestone and what happens next

NASA officials Wednesday announced they have completed a rigorous review of the Space Launch System (SLS) — the heavy-lift, exploration class rocket under development to take humans beyond Earth orbit and to Mars — and approved the program’s progression from formulation to development, something no other exploration class vehicle has achieved since the agency built the space shuttle.

“We are on a journey of scientific and human exploration that leads to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “And we’re firmly committed to building the launch vehicle and other supporting systems that will take us on that journey.”

For its first flight test, SLS will be configured for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit. In its most powerful configuration, SLS will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), which will enable missions even farther into our solar system, including such destinations as an asteroid and Mars.

This decision comes after a thorough review known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), which provides a development cost baseline for the 70-metric ton version of the SLS of $7.021 billion from February 2014 through the first launch and a launch readiness schedule based on an initial SLS flight no later than November 2018.

Conservative cost and schedule commitments outlined in the KDP-C align the SLS program with program management best practices that account for potential technical risks and budgetary uncertainty beyond the program’s control.

“Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program, and we owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right,” said Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who oversaw the review process. “After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment.”

“The Space Launch System Program has done exemplary work during the past three years to get us to this point,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“We will keep the teams working toward a more ambitious readiness date, but will be ready no later than November 2018.”
The SLS, Orion, and Ground Systems Development and Operations programs each conduct a design review prior to each program’s respective KDP-C, and each program will establish cost and schedule commitments that account for its individual technical requirements.

“We are keeping each part of the program — the rocket, ground systems, and Orion — moving at its best possible speed toward the first integrated test launch,” said Bill Hill, director Exploration Systems Development at NASA. “We are on a solid path toward an integrated mission and making progress in all three programs every day.”

“Engineers have made significant technical progress on the rocket and have produced hardware for all elements of the SLS program,” said SLS program manager Todd May. “The team members deserve an enormous amount of credit for their dedication to building this national asset.”

The program delivered in April the first piece of flight hardware for Orion’s maiden flight, Exploration Flight Test-1 targeted for December. This stage adapter is of the same design that will be used on SLS’s first flight, Exploration Mission-1.

Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans has all major tools installed and is producing hardware, including the first pieces of flight hardware for SLS. Sixteen RS-25 engines, enough for four flights, currently are in inventory at Stennis Space Center, in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where an engine is already installed and ready for testing this fall. NASA contractor ATK has conducted successful test firings of the five-segment solid rocket boosters and is preparing for the first qualification motor test.

SLS will be the world’s most capable rocket. In addition to opening new frontiers for explorers traveling aboard the Orion capsule, the SLS may also offer benefits for science missions that require its use and can’t be flown on commercial rockets.

The next phase of development for SLS is the Critical Design Review, a programmatic gate that reaffirms the agency’s confidence in the program planning and technical risk posture.

For more information about SLS, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/sls

AsiaSat-6 launch scrubbed

SpaceX announced this afternoon that this evening’s AsiaSat-6 launch has been scrubbed. This follows last Friday’s F9R test failure and almost certainly is to allow the team more time to review the data from that test and ensure that the problem won’t happen to the F9 launcher.

While this is yet another delay for SpaceX it is to be understood, while the failure last week was on a test vehicle having a similar issue with a commercial launch would be a big setback for SpaceX.

A new launch date has not yet been announced, SpaceX do have a backup date for 8/28 if ready otherwise could be next week.

Galileo Satellite’s launched to wrong orbit

Update to our previous story regarding the Soyuz Launch of two Galileo satellites.

At the end of the webcast yesterday ArianeSpace believed the satellites had been deployed to the planned orbits, however U.S. military orbital tracking data indicated the satellites were flying in a lower orbit than planned. Officials confirmed a launch anomaly in a statement late Friday.

“Complementary observations gathered after separation of the Galileo FOC M1 satellites on Soyuz Flight VS09 have highlighted a discrepancy between targeted and reached orbit,” Arianespace, the French launch services company, said in a statement.

Arianespace said investigations into the launch anomaly are underway and more information will be provided after a flight data analysis to be completed Saturday.

Orbital data from the U.S. Air Force showed three objects in an orbit with a low point around 13,700 kilometers — about 8,500 miles — above Earth. The objects are in an orbit with an inclination of 49.7 degrees, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tracks global satellite and launch activity.

Update: Several sources have said that there may not be enough fuel on the satellites to correct their orbits, if so they will need to launch two replacements in the future to complete the full constellation.

ArianeSpace launches two Galileo satellites

This morning a Soyuz rocket lifted off from the French Guiana Space Center carrying the first two fully operation Galileo satellites.  Galileo is the European’s version of the Global Positioning System, there are currently four satellites which were used to prove the system worked as needed, now that phase has completed the rest of the satellite fleet will now be launched to bring the system to full capacity.

The launch was delayed a day due to bad weather at French Guiana yesterday but launched successfully this morning following a smooth countdown.  The satellites were deployed from the Fregat upper stage after a brief second firing of the Fregat engine following a 3h 38m cruise to the desired orbit.  Once the spacecraft were deployed confirmation of communication with the ground stations was received.

Below are some screen grabs of the launch.

 

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ULA completes second launch in a week from Cape Canaveral

This evening a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying a GPS IIF satellite.  This was the second launch this week for ULA making it the fastest turn around for launches at the cape.

At the time of writing the spacecraft was still in it’s coast phase, once complete the RL10 engine will fire once more to circularize the orbit and then deploy the satellite.

Below are some images captured from the live stream of the launch.

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Last ATV begins journey to the station

va219_320469This evening the second of three planned launches this week lifted off carrying the final European Automated Transfer Vehicle to orbit.

The Ariane 5 rocket lifted off at 7:47:38 p.m. EDT from French Guiana carrying the ATV spacecraft, 64 minutes after liftoff the vehicle is scheduled to separate from the upper stage to begin it’s two week journey to the space station.

The ATV which is named Georges Lemaître after the Belgian astronomer is carrying over 8 tonnes of supplies to the ISS, including a record of 2695 kg dry cargo.  In addition to being the final ATV it is also the heaviest payload that Ariane 5 has ever launched at 20,300 kg. The ATV vehicle employ’s an automated docking system allowing it to autonomously arrive at the station and connect to the Russian section of the station like the Progress and Soyuz spacecraft do.

Once the spacecraft has completed it’s mission at the station it will be filled with trash and will then burn up in the atmosphere. During the fiery re-entry the spacecraft camera’s will be transmitting live video of the re-entry.

Below are screen captures of the launch from NASA TV.

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Delta 4 launches on 5th Attempt

Following one delay due to a technical issue and three due to bad weather a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket finally lifted off this evening carrying Twin inspector spacecraft and a micro-satellite test-bed.  The launch was delayed several times this evening also due to weather but finally a window opened and they were able to get off the ground.

Due to the nature of the mission the live stream ended before the payloads were deployed, check back here later to determine the status of the mission.

Below are some images captured from the live stream.

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Launch of Progress M-24M (56P)

The first of two launches scheduled for today was completed successfully when the Soyuz rocket placed the Progress M-24M spacecraft in orbit to begin it’s six hour journey to the International Space Station.

Once in orbit the spacecraft deployed it’s solar arrays and antenna’s before firing its engines to being travelling to the station.

Update 7/24/2014 – Six hours after liftoff the Progress spacecraft arrived at the station and successfully docked, additional images of the docking have been added below.

Images of the launch are below

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