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

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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.

SpaceX unveils Dragon v2 – Crew Vehicle

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The Dragon V2 spacecraft

This evening Elon Musk unveiled the next version of the Dragon spacecraft designed to take crews to the International Space Station and beyond.  The crewed version of Dragon has undergone quite a transformation from the first version which was hanging above the crowd during the unveiling.  The spacecraft is much bigger then before, has SuperDraco thruster which will serve both as an Emergency Escape System should there be an issue during ride to orbit as a propulsive landing mechanism allowing the crew module to return to land at the completion of it’s mission.  The crew module can carry up to seven passengers and the interior has a very modern looking interface with touch screen technology, with critical functions being available as button’s for emergencies.

The touch screen interfaces with emergency manual button interface in the middle.
The touch screen interfaces with emergency manual button interface in the middle.

Elon also said that with the addition of the SuperDraco thrusters it is now possible for Dragon to land anywhere in the world with the accuracy of a helicopter.

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Elon Musk inside the Dragon V2 spacecraft

During the reveal Elon explained that the spacecraft still has parachutes which would be used in the case that the SuperDraco engines failed during landing.  The spacecraft has been designed to be fully re-usable and once landed should only need to be re-fueled and attached to a Falcon 9 rocket to fly again.  As part of this Elon revealed that they are now on version three of there heatshield technology which will further reduce the damage of re-entry.

Dragon V2 arriving at station with Dragon Cargo already attached
Dragon V2 arriving at station with Dragon Cargo already attached

During the animation demonstrating the abilities of Dragon V2 we saw the spacecraft docking to the station using the same mechanism that the Space Shuttle utilized.  There was also a cargo Dragon attached to the station when the new version arrived.

Elon also explained that the SuperDraco thrusters were 160 times more powerful than the Draco thrusters that are used to maneuver when in space, there are four pairs on the vehicle and each is isolated so a failure won’t cause problems for the other.  He also revealed that the thrusters were fully 3D printed.

Unfortunately there wasn’t a question and answer time during the presentation and no detailed about when the first flight will be.

Below are more images captured of the unveiling.

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