SpaceX vs NASA progress since 2010

In 2010 Senator Richard Shelby made the following statement

“This request represents nothing more than a commercially-led, faith-based space program.  Today, the commercial providers that NASA has contracted with cannot even carry the trash back from the space station much less carry humans to or from space safely.

“These providers have yet to live up to the promises they have already made to the taxpayer.  Not a single rocket or ounce of cargo has been launched since we met last year.  Instead of requiring accountability from these companies, the President’s budget proposes to reward these failed commercial providers with an additional bailout.

Full text here

While it was true at the time that no cargo had been launched by any of the competitors in the program, to say that SpaceX was a “failed provider that needed an additional bailout” seemed a little harsh. As we will see in the article things have changed quite a bit since then for SpaceX and for comparison in the same time frame we will see the lack of progress for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

SpaceX

Started in 2002 by Elon Musk, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation known as SpaceX was created to lower the cost of access to space. The first rocket that was developed was the Falcon 1 which had a single Merlin engine, SpaceX attempted five launches of the Falcon 1 the first three of which failed. All their future hopes rested on the fourth launch which was successful and delivered their first payload to orbit, also making Falcon the first privately funded liquid fueled rocket to do so.

In 2006 SpaceX was awarded a NASA Commercial Orbital Transporation Service (COTS) contract which allowed them to develop the Falcon 9 rocket which is the vehicle they current use for all launches. Four years later SpaceX launched their first Falcon 9 rocket which carried the new Dragon cargo capsule to orbit for a brief mission that splashed down in the Pacific Ocean two orbits later, making SpaceX the first commercial company to successfully launch, orbit and return a cargo vehicle. Two years later they followed that launch with their first COTS demo mission to the International Space Station and soon after became the first and at present only commercial company capable of delivering cargo to and returning cargo from the station.

SpaceX didn’t stop with just NASA contracts, they so far launched XX commercial missions for various companies and has many more orders in their manifest.

Since that initial launch in 2010 SpaceX has upgraded the Falcon 9 rocket three times to what is currently in use today the Falcon 9 (v1.2) or Full Thrust version which is capable of carrying 22,800kg to Low Earth Orbit or 8,300kg to Geo-Transfer Orbit. SpaceX has also pursued a goal of making the Falcon 9 (and any future rockets) re-usable a goal which was achieved for the first time in March 2017.  There are two more upgrades planned for the Falcon 9 both of which are due in 2017, the changes should allow faster turn-around times for the reusability of the rocket and also address issues found with cracking in the Merlin engines.

In August 2012 SpaceX was awarded a second NASA contract this time to develop a crewed version of their Dragon capsule to allow NASA astronauts to be transported to/from the ISS.  They are still developing the crew version with a demonstration mission planned for late 2017.

Things haven’t been smooth sailing however in 2015 they suffer the first failure of their Falcon 9 vehicle when a strut broke during launch which caused the second stage to be destroyed, this resulted in the loss of a Dragon capsule carrying cargo to the ISS.  In 2016 during a static fire test, the rocket exploded on the launch pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle, its payload and significant damage to the launch pad.

Elon said after the successful SES-10 launch in March that so far SpaceX had spent about $1 billion dollars in the development of Falcon 9.  Some of that money came from NASA, some from the commercial launches and some from SpaceX themselves.

SLS/Orion

To put what SpaceX has achieved into perspective I thought it would be useful to compare what NASA has achieved in the same seven years since Senator Shelby made that statement.

The Space Launch System (SLS) started life as the Constellation program in 2005, the program was to consist of two launch vehicles Ares 1 and 5 as well as a crew capsule Orion.  This program launched a single Ares 1 rocket in October 2009 before it was canceled.  In 2010 under the direction of President Obama, the SLS program was launched utilizing the Orion capsule and a successor to the Ares 5 design.

Rather than develop a completely new system SLS was to be designed to utilize the RS-25 engines that flew on the Space Shuttle (STS) and upgraded versions of the Solid Rocket Booster that also launched STS. Unlike STS neither the engines or SRB’s are to be recovered after launch making SLS a completely expendable rocket.

Since 2010 NASA has spent approximately $18 billion dollars developing SLS and Orion and so far has only launched Orion once using a United Launch Alliance Delta Heavy rocket.  In addition, estimates show that each individual launch could cost anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion.

The current plan is for NASA to launch the first SLS rocket in 2018 on an uncrewed test, this schedule could be impacted however due to damage at NASA Michoud facility following a tornado.

While the first launch will prove the design of the SLS SRB’s, main stage and Orion capsule it will not allow a test of the complete system as it will use the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) 2nd stage which is only going to be flown once.  The Exploration Upper Stage which will be used for subsequent launches is bigger than the ICPS, this will require that NASA makes changes to the mobile launch platform after one launch.

Recently NASA started an investigation into the possibility of adding a crew to the first mission, the results of this have not yet been published but could add additional delays.

Summary

In summary, since Senator Shelby made that statement SpaceX has launched 32 times include ten missions to the ISS, they have a large manifest of missions and have upgrades and new vehicles in development. Included in those missions is a plan to send the new Dragon spacecraft to orbit the Moon and also to land on Mars.

In contrast, NASA’s SLS system has cost approximately 18 times as much and so far only the Orion capsule has been launched. The first actual launch is still at least a year away and even then will not be the complete SLS system.  Until this year it could have been argued that SLS had different destinations in mind, however with SpaceX’s announcements of Red Dragon and more recently their Crew Dragon mission around the Moon this isn’t even a valid argument.

 

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.

Orion completes maiden voyage

NASA’s Orion spacecraft has completed it’s maiden voyage with a successful splashdown in the pacific ocean.  After the launch this morning a number of tests were performed during the two orbit mission, Orion was the first human rated spacecraft to travel beyond Low Earth Orbit since Apollo 17 which flew 42 years ago.

This mission allowed NASA and Lockheed Martin, the prime Orion contractor, to verify some of the following:-

  1. The heat shield, further tests will be performed once the spacecraft has been retrieve to give them a full understanding on the effects the re-entry had.
  2. How the systems coped as they traveled through the Van Allen radiation belts.
  3. How the payload fairing and launch abort system worked during liftoff.

Initial indications show that there were no critical issues during the whole mission with one minor issue after splashdown where one or more of the stabilization balloons on top of the vehicle didn’t deploy correctly.  The flight was very successful showing that the heat shield could withstand the heat of re-entry, tests after the landing will show how much of the Ablator on the shield was burned off.

Unfortunately now we will have to wait another four years before the next flight of Orion which will also be the debut of the Space Launch System rocket,

Below are some images captured from NASA TV during the mission, of the return and splashdown of Orion

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NASA’s Orion has begun it’s EFT-1 mission

Following a smooth countdown the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavies three main engine’s came to life today to lift the Orion capsule to orbit.  18 minutes later the upper stage completed its first firing and left the Orion capsule in the desired orbit.

EFT-1 Mission Diagram
EFT-1 Mission Diagram

Over the next two orbits Orion will follow the flight profile outlined to the right before splashing down in the pacific ocean later today.  The upper stage will fire once again after the first orbit to allow Orion to move further away from Earth than any crew rate vehicle has been since the last Apollo mission.

Below are images captured from NASA TV of the launch, our next update will be later today following the completion of the test flight.

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Orion’s maiden voyage delayed 24 hours

Today’s launch of the Orion spacecraft had to be scrubbed due to a technical issue with the Delta IV Heavy. During the countdown today there were several attempts made to lift off but various factors stopped that from happening. Two of the attempts were aborted due to higher than expected wind gusts during the final four minutes of the count. The issue that ultimately stopped the launch was with the fill/drain valves in the rocket core stages. Two of them had failed to close correctly and despite a valiant effort by the team they were not able to resolve it in time to launch in the window available.

Another attempt will be made tomorrow morning Friday 12/5 with the launch window again opening at 7:05am EST, the weather forecast for the launch calls for a 60% chance that the weather will violate the launch criteria.

Below are some screen grabs taken during the countdown, we will post later today with the Ariane 5 launch.

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T-1 day and counting to NASA’s Orion EFT-1

Tomorrow the first Orion mission should be under way, however the future for Orion and it’s carrier rocket Space Launch System (SLS) is not guaranteed.  The first flight for SLS is still four years away maybe sooner if they can finish the rocket faster but given the number of delays already it seems more likely that it could be delayed further.

Unfortunately before then there will be another Presidential election and there is no telling what the new President will do.  In a previous article I talked about the cost of SLS/Orion, that will fact into any decisions that a new administration makes.  The first crewed flight is not scheduled until some time in the early 2020’s, by which time we could be on a second new President.

By the first crewed launch, baring launches by other space agencies or commercial companies, it will have been almost 50 years since a crewed mission went beyond Low Earth Orbit.  There is also speculation that another test flight may be needed as the upper stage for the crewed mission will not have flown before and current flight rules require at last one test flight before a human crew is aboard.

Beyond that there are other missions that have been discussed but nothing has been finalized, proposals include a robotic mission to Europa, Mars Sample Return mission, Deep Space Habitat, etc.  For a full list of current proposals check out the Wikipedia page here.

We believe there is a place for SLS in the future of manned missions beyond Earth but are concerned with the cost so far to build SLS and Orion and whether future governments will be willing to fund it long term.

We have deliberately avoided comparing launch costs with that of SpaceX or Boeing and their commercial crew proposals for several reasons:-

  • SLS/Orion is not designed to fly to the International Space Station
  • SLS/Orion doesn’t currently have a published per launch cost making any comparisons impossible to determine.
  • SLS/Orion is designed for deep space and due to that has heavier components than on the commercial crew solutions.

The next update will be tomorrow after the launch of EFT-1

T-2 days and counting to NASA’s Orion EFT-1

The first orbital flight of the Orion spacecraft will allow NASA and it’s contractor Lockheed Martin to verify the design of the vehicle in space itself, for this flight there will be no crew members however there will be a vast amount of instrumentation and sensors on board to provide as much data as possible during the mission.

While Orion is designed to fly on the Space Launch System (SLS) in the long term because the rocket isn’t ready to fly yet this mission will be flown using a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket.

This is the first flight into space for Orion but it isn’t the first flight, a number of drop tests have already been performed to allow the parachutes and other systems used during landing to be validated, in addition a number of tests have been performed in a large pool to verify that the vehicle can right itself should it land in the wrong orientation.  Like the Apollo module used for the moon missions Orion will land on water, a number of tests have been performed to verify that the recovery ships can retrieve the module once it has landed.

EFT-1 Mission Diagram
EFT-1 Mission Diagram

The four and a half hour flight will take the Orion spacecraft on two orbits of Earth. Peak altitude will be approximately 3,600 miles. The high altitude will allow the the spacecraft to reach reentry speeds of up to 20,000 mph, which will expose the heat shield to temperatures up to around 4,000 °F, or 80% of the temperature that would be experienced upon reentry from a moon mission.

Next update tomorrow we will look at the future for Orion and SLS.

T-3 days and counting to NASA’s Orion EFT-1

Officially known as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) the vehicle was announced in May 2011.  The design of the vehicle is derived from the cancelled Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle which was to be a part of the Constellation program announced by President Bush in 2004, that program was eventually cancelled by President Obama and the new mission announced.

Cutout view of the Orion Spacecraft © NASA
Cutout view of the Orion Spacecraft © NASA

The spacecraft will be made up of two parts, the Command Module (CM), built by Lockheed Martin, where the crew will reside during flight and the Service Module (SM), supplied by the European Space Agency (ESA) and built by Airbus Defense and Space, which will provide power and propulsion.  For the EFT-1 flight the Service Module will comprise of the Delta IV upper stage and Orion will rely on batteries to provide power.

The first flight with the ESA provided Service Module is expected on Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) currently scheduled for 2018.

Orion is being designed for deep space missions which unlike missions to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) require a stronger heat shield during re-entry due to the increased speed as the spacecraft approaches the planet.  In addition the vehicle will need to withstand stronger doses of radiation than those visiting LEO which is still somewhat protected by Earth’s atmosphere.  The vehicle is designed along the lines of the old Apollo Command Modules but there the comparison finishes, internally it will have 50% more volume and will be 5.02 meters (16 ft 6 in) in diameter and 3.3 meters (10 ft 10 in) in length, with a mass of about 8.5 metric tons (19,000 lb).  The module is designed to support a crew of 4-6 for up to 21 days of active flight, with an orbital life of six months when combined with another module for longer missions.

Orion’s CM will use advanced technologies, including:

  • “Glass cockpit” digital control systems derived from those of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
  • An “autodock” feature, like those of Russian Progress spacecraft and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle, with provision for the flight crew to take over in an emergency. Previous American spacecraft (Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle) have all required manual piloting for docking.
  • Improved waste-management facilities, with a miniature camping-style toilet and the unisex “relief tube” used on the space shuttle (whose system was based on that used on Skylab) and the International Space Station (based on the Soyuz, Salyut, and Mir systems). This eliminates the use of the much-hated plastic “Apollo bags” used by the Apollo crews.
  • A nitrogen/oxygen (N2/O2) mixed atmosphere at either sea level (101.3 kPa or 14.69 psi) or slightly reduced (55.2 to 70.3 kPa or 8.01 to 10.20 psi) pressure.
  • Much more advanced computers than on previous crewed spacecraft.
NASA has announced that it will conduct an unmanned test flight called the Exploration Flight Test-1 or EFT-1 in 2014. Image Credit: NASA.gov
Artists rendering of the Orion Spacecraft in orbit with the Delta IV upper stage. Image Credit: NASA.gov

Next update tomorrow we will look at the Goals of the test flight.

Information for this article was gather from NASA and the 
Orion wikipedia page.

T-4 days and counting to NASA’s Orion EFT-1

800px-Exploration_Flight_Test-1_insigniaA few days from now the first flight of NASA’s new crewed space vehicle Orion is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral. The mission called Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) will not be a crewed test flight and is designed to test out the Orion systems and heat shield. For this mission the capsule will be carried to space on top of a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket from space launch complex 37B. Future missions will be carried to orbit by NASA Space Launch System (SLS).

Over the next week we will explore the Orion spacecraft, the goals of the test flight, the future for Orion and the SLS rocket.

Next update tomorrow we will look at the Orion spacecraft.

Weekly Space Blog 6/6

Kepler back online

The Kepler spacecraft that was sidelined last year after two of it’s gyroscopes failed has been re-purposed to the K2 mission.

The original mission of Kepler was to continuously observe the same patch of the sky looking for slight dips in the brightness of the star.  This indicated that a planet or object transitioned across the star.  To determine if there truly was a planet there and it’s orbital period they needed to observe the same dip at least three times.  The initial results from Kepler showed planets that were very close to their parent star and yielded a lot of results, as the mission continued they started to see planets that were further out and had much longer orbit periods.  Over the four years Kepler was observing they found 962 confirmed exoplanets in more than 76 stellar systems, along with a further 2,903 unconfirmed planet candidates.

NASA-KeplerSecondLight-K2-Explained-20131211K2 will use approximately 80-day’s of observations per campaign allow it to perform a unique exoplanet survey which fills the gaps in duration and sensitivity of other missions and much better precision than is possible on the ground.

For more information on K2 and how targets will be selected check out the full mission page here.

Orion’s first launch progress

The first test flight of the Orion capsule moved a step closer this week with the attachment of the heat shield.  The heat shield which protects the vehicle from the intense heat of re-entry is the largest ever flown.

The test flight which is scheduled for later this year will demonstrate the ability of the vehicle to survive a high speed re-entry similar to those experienced by the Apollo missions that went to the moon.

The mission is tentatively scheduled for December 4th on-board a Delta 4 heavy but that may change depending on progress of the test vehicle.

SpaceX News

This week SpaceX’s COO Gwynne Shotwell gave a talk at the Atlantic Council, during which she gave more details about the success of the company both in there launch successes so far with 9 for 9 in Falcon 9 launches.  They currently have 42 missions on the books worth about $4.2 billion, approximately $100 million per mission.  She also explained that SpaceX captured 100% of the launch contracts in the Falcon 9 class market during 2011/12.

They are currently producing one Falcon 9 a month and are moving towards increasing this to two. She also talked about the Falcon Heavy test launch and that they are current building the tanks for that flight which is expected early next year.

She also talked more about the up-coming manifest, and addressed the concerns regarding their ability to meet the commitments. She believes that they will prove that they can over the coming months.  She then went on to talk about the re-usability of rockets and the change that will bring to the market in the long run.

In other related news Dr. Garrett Reisman of SpaceX indicated that the Dragon V2 vehicle will look to use the 6 hour accelerated approach to the station as the Soyuz does today.

First Laser communications from ISS

This week the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) experiment on the station this week transmitted it’s first video via Laser.  The video can be seen here.

These experiments will eventually lead to higher capacity communications between vehicles in space and the ground.  OPALS was delivered to the station on the last SpaceX Dragon mission in the un-pressurized trunk and placed on the outside of the station by the CanadaArm 2.

European Extremely Large Telescope

The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will be the largest optical/near-infrared telescope built to far, with a 39 metre main mirror it will gather 15 times more light than any other telescope currently in operation today and will take images that are 15 times sharper than anything Hubble has taken.  It will be able to image Earth like planets around other stars and study Jupiter like planets in great detail.

To be built on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile the telescope first light is planned for 2022.

See a trailer video here.

See a brochure of the E-ELT here.

ISS HD Earth Viewing Experiment

The HDev experiment is attached to the outside of the International Space Station and provides high definition views of the earth via a UStream channel.  Below is a slide show of some of the images from this week.

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