The Year of Commercial Crew

If all goes to plan this year we should see at least four Commercial Crew vehicle launches as Boeing and SpaceX complete their uncrewed and crewed demo launches.  In addition, we should also see an in-flight launch abort from SpaceX as they test the system and Max-Q when the maximum dynamic pressure is felt by the rocket during launch.

So what is the Commercial Crew program?

Following on from the success of the Commercial Cargo (COTS) program, which resulted in Orbital ATK (formally Orbital Sciences) and SpaceX being awarded contracts to launch cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA launched a commercial crew program with the goal of delivering four crew members to the ISS and successfully returning them to Earth at the end of their mission.

As with the COTS program, NASA designed the Commercial Crew program to be milestone based where payments would only be made when the milestones had been achieved.  As part of the bidding process, the competitors defined their own milestones detailing when they would achieve to meet those.

The program was broken into multiple phases started with the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) 1 program which was awarded to five companies Blue Origin, Boeing, Paragon Space Development Corporation, Sierra Nevada Corporation and United Launch Alliance.  A total of $50 million was awarded and a total of 53 milestones defined all due to be completed by 2010.

The second phase CCDev 2, $270 mission was awarded in March 2011 to seven companies, three of those were non-funded.  The funded awards were given to Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX, and Boeing with the non-funded awards going to United Launch Alliance, Alliant TechSystems (ATK) and Excalibur Almaz.

In September 2011 the third phase awards were made under the name Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCap), with this phase NASA wanted complete, end-to-end designs for spacecraft, launch vehicles, launch services and operations.   Three companies were awarded contracts in this phase for a total of $1.1 billion, Sierra Nevada, SpaceX, and Boeing.

The next phase was awarded to the same three companies and was called the Certification Products Contract (CPC) 1, in this phase they had to define the certification plan for their systems.

The final phase was awarded to two companies Boeing and SpaceX under the name Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap).  Under this phase, the two companies are required to complete two demonstration launches of their vehicle with the second taking a crew to the ISS.

Boeing’s CST-100

Boeing is developing a capsule-based vehicle called the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner.  The capsule is designed to carry as many as seven crew members, for the commercial crew program however they will only be carrying four.

Full details of the CST-100 can be found here.

The CST-100 will launch atop the Atlas V from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 41 which has been upgraded to include a crew access tower and arm to allow access to the CST-100 capsule.

SpaceX’s Dragon 2

The SpaceX entry for the Commercial Crew program is an upgraded version of the Dragon capsule that is currently flying to the ISS on a regular basis.  When first announced SpaceX planned to use the same thrusters for Launch Abort and Propulsive Landing capabilities, this would have given the capsule the ability to land anywhere that had a pad.  However, since then the propulsive landing capability has been dropped in favor of a water landing as the current Dragon capsule does.

The Crew Dragon launch abort system is built directly into the capsule allowing abort capability all the way to orbit.  SpaceX tested the system with a pad abort test on 6th May 2015 when the capsule fired the SuperDraco engines before successfully deploying its parachutes and splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.

Full details of the Crew Dragon can be found here.

The Crew Dragon is designed to carry as many as seven crew members to orbit and safely return them to Earth at the conclusion of their mission.  For the Commercial Crew program, SpaceX will only be carrying four crew members to the ISS.  Once launched the capsule will use an automated docking system to approach and dock to the ISS, to aid with this NASA has modified the old Shuttle Docking system with the International Docking Adapter.  The first IDA was lost during the SpaceX CRS-7 anomaly, however, a 2nd adapter successfully flew to the station on CRS-9 in July 2016 and a replacement for the first is due to fly on CRS-16 in Summer 2018.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that whoever successfully launches the first crewed mission to the ISS will have bragging rights, however, the real winner in this program is the America Space Program which has been without the ability to launch any crew from US soil since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011.  In addition at present, there are only two countries with the capability to launch a crew into space China and Russia, once Boeing and SpaceX have completed their programs the US will double that and we still have the Space Launch System (SLS) and potentially a crewed version of Dream Chaser coming in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

SpaceX launches 4th Iridium Next Mission

SpaceX concluded it’s launch manifest for 2017 with the successful launch of the 4th Iridium Next and deployment of another ten Iridium Next satellites.  The booster used for this mission previously launched ten Iridium Next satellites in June of this year.

This was the 18th launch this year for SpaceX and 45th Falcon 9, unlike previous Iridium launches SpaceX didn’t land the booster instead letting is splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

SpaceX launches CRS-13 mission to ISS

SpaceX successfully launched their CRS-13 mission to the International Space Station today marking the return to flight for Launch Complex 40 (LC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS).  The launch was delayed a couple of days to allow SpaceX time to resolve an issue with particles in the 2nd stage fuel system.

This launch also marked the first time that SpaceX had used a flight-proven booster for a NASA CRS mission, the booster 10XX.2 previously launched the CRS-11 mission in June 2017.  This was the second time a flight-proven Dragon capsule was used, having previously flown on the CRS-6 mission in April 2015.

This was SpaceX’s 17th launch for 2017 and the 45th flight of Falcon 9, and the 14th landing with 20 overall.

SpaceX return LC-40 to operations with CRS-13 static fire test

SpaceX returned their Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Launch Complex 40 (LC-40) to operation today following a successful static fire test of the booster designated to take CRS-13 to the International Space Station next week.

The pad which was damaged during the AMOS 6 accident in September 2016 has been repaired and a new Transport Erector has been created to allow launches to return to the pad that first launched the Falcon 9.

While the accident caused a four-month delay in launches for SpaceX the loss of LC-40 wasn’t a damaging for the company as it could have been because they have a second launch pad in Florida thanks to the 20 year lease of Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC) Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) which they had been modifying for Falcon 9 crewed launches and Falcon Heavy.

SpaceX is currently targetting to launch the CRS-13 mission from LC-40 on 12th December.

ULA launches JPSS-1

United Launch Alliance launched the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration JPSS-1 satellite on the penultimate Delta II rocket.

The launch was delayed several times due to technical issues with the rocket then upper-level winds but finally launched successfully at 4:47 am EST today.

Orbital ATK launches Cygnus on OA-8 mission

Following a one day delay, due to a wayward plane during the countdown yesterday, Orbital ATK successfully launched their Cygnus spacecraft, S.S. Gene Cernan today for an International Space Station rendezvous on Tuesday.

This was the second Cygnus launch on the companies own Antares 230 vehicle, which uses the Russia RD-181 engines.  This was the seventh launch of Antares with six successfully completing their missions and one failure.  That failure led to the redesign of the Antares rocket which caused a two-year delay in launches, during that time Orbital made use of United Launch Alliances Atlas V to launch Cygnus to the ISS.

SpaceX launches Koreasat 5A, doubles previous year launch count

SpaceX continued their record settings year with the launch of the Koreasat 5A payload today from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A.  This was the 16th launch of the year for SpaceX doubling last years launch total with potentially three more to come and was the 13th landing with the first stage returning to the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship “Of Course I Still Love You”.

Following a smooth countdown, the Falcon 9 lifted off at 3:34 pm EDT from LC-39A and successfully delivered the payload to orbit 35m 38s later.

SpaceX Launch/Landing Stats can be found here

Thales Alenia Space confirmed successful acquisition of signal

Blue Origin completes BE-4 hot fire test

Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin sent a tweet out today with the news that they had completed the first hot fire test of their BE-4 engine which will be used to power their New Glenn rocket and could also be selected by United Launch Alliance (ULA) to power their Vulcan rocket.

While results of the test are not currently available this is an important step for Blue Origin as it moves them closer to both New Glenn and also selection by ULA. We look forward to seeing how the tests progress.

SpaceX launches SES 11/EchoStar 105

SpaceX completed their 15th launch of 2017 with the delivery of the SES 11/EchoStar 105 satellite to orbit this evening, this was the 3rd launch using a flight-proven booster.

Following a smooth countdown the rocket lifted off at 6:53 pm EDT and 37 minutes later delivered the payload to orbit.

Following the successful launch, the first stage returned to the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship “Of Course I Still Love You” making this the 18th time they have landed a stage.

This was the 43rd launch of the Falcon 9 for SpaceX.

SpaceX completes Iriduim-3 launch

This morning SpaceX completed the third of their Iridium Next launches delivery another ten satellites to orbit.

As with the previous Iridium launches the rocket lifted off from SpaceX’s Vandenburg launch site at 8:37 am EDT.  Once in orbit, the ten satellites were delivered to their destinations successfully.  After separation, the first stage of the rocket landed back on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship “Just Read The Instructions”.

This was the 14th launch for SpaceX in 2017 and 42nd overall for the Falcon 9.  This was the 11th landing this year with a total of 17 to date.