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.

 

 

 

 

 

NASA awards first Commercial Crew Flight Contract

This week NASA announced that it had awarded Boeing the first Commercial Crew flight contract under the CCtCap program. However it is important to realize that while the contract has been awarded, as NASA started in the press release.

Determination of which company will fly its mission to the station first will be made at a later time.

So why were Boeing selected first?  This is a matter of scheduling, the Boeing CST-100 module will be launched atop a ULA Atlas V rocket to ensure that they are able to launch by late 2017 they need to book the flight now to enter the processing flow.  SpaceX has a shorter lead time for their rockets as they manufacture the whole system internally.

There is no denying that this is a significant step both for NASA and Boeing but as they stated there is not guarantee that just because they were awarded the first contract means they will actual fly the first contracted flight.  This will be determined once future milestones in the CCtCap program have been completed and NASA can be confident that they can complete the flight when needed.

Is US Manned Space Program falling behind?

Since the Space Shuttle completed it’s last flight the US has had to rely on Russia to launch manned missions to the International Space Station, and this will continue for at least two more years.

There are currently two countries with the ability to launch manned missions Russia and China, there are five others US, ESA, India, Iran and Japan working on programs.

India recently launched their Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mk III vehicle, the most powerful so far, which carried the Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) vehicle which is the first stage of their manned program.

The status of the other programs is unknown at this point with the plans calling for delivery in the 2020’s.

So what does this mean for the US Manned program?

At present there are four active programs for Orbital Manned Spaceflight in the US those are Boeing’s CST-100, NASA’s Orion, SNC’s Dream Chaser and SpaceX’s Dragon V2. Of these three are being funded by NASA and the four has previously been funded and is currently disputing the award to the other competitors.

Before we decide if the US is falling behind lets take a look at each program.

Boeing’s CST-100
The CST-100 like the Dragon V2 and Orion spacecraft is based on a capsule design which will return to Earth and land under parachutes.

The CST-100 will be launched on an Atlas V rocket supplied by ULA.

NASA’s Orion
Orion is designed to travel beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), while it could operate in LEO there really isn’t much point as the commercial companies will have this ability before Orion’s next flight.  The first test flight of Orion was completed successfully earlier this month.

The Orion spacecraft will be launched on NASA’s Space Launch System rocket which is due to debut in 2018.

SNC’s Dream Chaser
Unlike the other’s Dream Chaser is a lifting body spacecraft designed to land automatically on conventional runways.

Dream Chaser will be launched by an Atlas V but a smaller version is also being designed that could launch on Stratolaunch.

SpaceX’s Dragon V2
The Dragon V2 spacecraft is the crewed version of the currently operating Dragon spacecraft that has supplied the space station five times. This vehicle will include the ability to automatically dock with the station and will use a propulsive landing to allow it to precisely control where it lands.

Dragon V2 will be launched on the Falcon 9 v1.1 as the current Dragon does.

Conclusion

Far from falling behind the rest of the world we truly believe that the US is in a far stronger position for the future. Having four active manned programs three of which are commercially owed will help to keep costs lower and will ensure that the US has access to space even if one system suffers a failure.

CCtCap awards announced

launch-02_0
Image Credit: NASA

Today at 4pm EDT from Kennedy Space Center NASA announced the winners of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts.

And the winners are:

CST-100
Image Credit: Boeing

Boeing – The CST-100 capsule seen to the right has been awarded $4.2 billion of the money.  Over the next three years Boeing will have to complete a number of milestones below to prove that the CST-100 capsule can indeed deliver crew to the ISS.

While the CST-100, according to Boeing, can be launched on multiple rockets they have selected to use the Atlas V as the launch vehicle.

This will bring Boeing’s total under the Commercial Crew Development program to $4.77 billion.

Image Credit: SpaceX
Image Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX – The Dragon V2 again seen on the right has also been awarded a contract of $2.6 billion allowing NASA to have a two options for the CCtCap process.

At the time of writing SpaceX have not completed their pad or launch abort tests from the CCiCap contract, however they are scheduled to be completed in the next six months and there should be no reason that SpaceX couldn’t be ready before 2017.

This will bring SpaceX’s total under the Commercial Crew Development program $3.11 billion

Each company will have to pass five certification milestones as well as a number of others that they themselves have selected, payment will be based on the different milestones.  We will bring you news of these milestones once the information has been been made available.

Under the contracts awarded today both companies will perform one demo flight each and a maximum of six crewed missions to the station carrying four crew members each time, they also include some money towards additional studies.  With the introduction of the Dragon V2 and CST-100 NASA have also announced that the space station will move from a six member crew to seven members allow more research to be performed.

The award amounts are based on the paperwork that was submitted during the process by each company and both have to meet the same goals laid out by NASA.  Basically SpaceX will be achieving the same goals for 62% the cost that Boeing will.

In summary this is what we hoped would happen, two competitors have been selected and the next few years are going to be exciting for US manned spaceflight, we are another step closer to returning crewed flight to US soil and despite the fact that one of the competitors is still reliant on Russian engines to get into orbit that may change too as news of a partnership between ULA and Blue Origin to be announced tomorrow could see the RD-180 replaced, we will bring new of that announcement as soon as we have it.

At present we have no news on what will happen to the Dream Chaser program at SNC, when we have further information it will be made available here.

Weekly Space Blog 9/21

Another amazing week in space…

Cygnus Successfully Launched
Antares_LaunchWith the exception of one issue with the fuel system that caused a slight delay in the launch time Orbital successfully launched there Antares Rocket with the Cygnus spacecraft.  The Cygnus is currently on route to the International Space Station and once a number of demonstration steps have been completed successfully is due to berth with the station tomorrow.

Once the vehicle has been unloaded the ISS crew will load items that are no longer needed, after about 30 days at the station it will unberth.  Unlike the Dragon spacecraft the Cygnus cannot return back to earth but instead burns up during re-entry.

Latest reports show the the spacecraft has successfully fired it’s main engine’s to alter it’s course to the station, a number of the tests are performed close to the station to verify that the approach and capture can be aborted if needed.  Once all the tests are passed NASA and Orbital will have a final go-no-go poll before the craft enters the keep out zone around the station so that it can be captured by the crew using the station arm.

SpaceX Static Fire Test Update
The first static fire test of the new Falcon 9 v1.1 showed up some anomalies, due to this SpaceX attempted another test this week which was successful.  However due to the delay’s caused by needing the second test launch of the new version has been delayed until 9/29 to accommodate ICBM tests at the launch site.

Atlas 5 launch successful
A secure communications satellite was launched from the cape this week by an Atlas 5 for the U.S. Air Force.  This was the first of two large launches on the same day on the U.S. East Coast, the second was the Orbital launch of Cygnus seven hours later.

Next Station Crew Soyuz Integrated
The Soyuz TMA-10M vehicle was integrated with it’s Launcher this week in preparations for the launch of Flight Engineer Michael Hopkins of NASA, Soyuz Commander Oleg Kotov and Flight Engineer Sergey Ryazanskiy, both with Russia’s Federal Space Agency on 9/26.  The next major milestone in this preparations will be roll out to the launch pad expected on Monday 9/23.

Deep Impact Update
Following a month of attempts to re-establish contact with the now silent spacecraft NASA to announced that the mission is over.  Engineer’s suspect that the vehicle lost stabilization control and was no longer pointing it’s Solar Array’s at the sun causing the battery’s to run out.  The vehicle was tremendous successful having completed all of it’s primary mission objects as well as returning approximately 500,000 images of different space objects.

Space Alien Claim
This week a scientist if Britain claimed to have evidence of Alien Life taken from sample obtained from the upper atmosphere.  The story got quite a lot of traction on some new media however was very quickly debunked.  The same scientist has made similar claims in the past and each time has proven to be wrong because there has never been scientific evidence to back up his claims.

Life on Mars Update
Hope’s of finding life on Mars faded a little this week when a study by the Mars Curiosity Rover detected only trace amounts of Methane in the atmosphere.  Of course if Mars One or other’s get there way this will change in the next couple of decades as human’s will visit the planet and bring with them microbes and other forms of life.

India Mars Mission spacecraft revealed
mangalyaan-mars-orbiter-isro-india-lgThe week India unveiled it’s first Mars Spacecraft expected to launch later in late October or early November.  The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) announced that the vehicle will have five scientific instruments on-board designed to conduct various experiments while orbiting the planet.  The vehicle is expected to arrive at the planet in September 2014 following a 9 month cruise.

Boeing Tests CST-100 Thrusters
This week Boeing announced that it has completed a series of tests of the thrusters that will be used on the CST-100 Spacecraft when in orbit.  In combination with Aerojet Rocketdyne the thruster manufacturer the tests assessed how the thrusters performed in different scenarios as would be expected in space operations.  This is a significant step forward in the design of the spacecraft which is designed to talk crew into LEO.

Chinese Space Station final days
The Chinese Space Agency announced that their first Space Station Tiangong was entering it’s final month’s of operation before a fiery re-entry into earth’s atmosphere.  Tiangong hosted two different crews during it’s lifetime and brought the Chinese one step closer to having a permanent presence in space.

And Finally
While not related to Space I wanted to share the news from Elon Musk that Tesla are currently looking for Engineer’s to work on autonomous driving option for the Tesla Model S car.  According to Elon they plan to use 360 deg flush mounted camera’s and radar which will require lost of image processing capabilities.  Anyone interested should email autopilot@teslamotors.com, the team will report directly to Elon.