Private sector will provide Space Shuttle replacement just in time as tensions with Russia escalate

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on Tuesday announced a major effort dubbed "Launch America", which aims to offer a private partnership to replace the retired Space Shuttle by 2017.  Leaked hours before, NASA's awards target two top commerical ventures locked in a heated race to restore America's launch capabilities.

Ever since the Space Shuttle was retired in mid-2011, NASA has been exploring private sector alternatives under its Commercial Crew Vehicle (CCV) program.  Unfortunately, the CCV has been stymied by budget cuts and lack of established entrants.  These cuts in late 2011 pushed the targeted launch window for a manned test of CCV candidates from 2015 to 2017 (still the current target).

Initially NASA had planned to make its own spacecraft.  But those plans were scrapped in 2010 when NASA announced it was shuttering development of the Ares I launch vehicle which would be topped with an Orion crew capsule.

Now amidst rising political tensions with Russia, NASA is under substantial pressure to find an alternative taxi to Russia's Soyuz capsules, which currently ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

The first contract awardee hardly comes as a surprise. Elon Musk's Space Exploration Company (SpaceX) was awarded funding to continue the development of its DragonX V2 space capsule.  The DragonX V2 (aka the "Crew Dragon") was already targeting a 2017 manned launch window.  It has seating for 7 passengers.

DragonX V2 in flight

DragonX V2

DragonX V2 reentry

DragonX V2
SpaceX's DragonX V2

SpaceX was actually the smaller contract.  It can secure a maximum of $2.6B USD under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program.  This is the latest phase of funding in a program that has gone through a number of earlier stages (e.g. in 2012 it was funded as the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) program).

NASA awarded a second contract to the Boeing Comp. (BA), which recently partnered with rival firm Blue Origin LLC.  The pet project of, Inc. (AMZN) CEO and founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin may build the engines for Boeing's crew vehicle, according to The Wall Street Journal, although its exact role in the project has not yet been officially announced.

Based near Seattle, Washington, the stealthy startup has kept a low profile, but is reportedly making major advances in its rocket design, thanks to a mixture of reverse engineering and high profile acquired talent.  In December 2013, Blue Origin successfully demoed its American-made BE-3 liquid hydrogen rocket engine.

The BE-3 could potentially propel Boeing's Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 capsule into orbit.  Previous plans called for a launch using an Atlas V rocket.  Boeing has been developing the design for several years now, under a $18M USD contract from NASA.  Boeing's award is worth a maximum of $4.2B USD, part of which it may push down to Blue Origin.  This is more lopsided that the 2012 awards, which gave Boeing $460M USD and SpaceX $440M USD.

Boeing CST-100

Boeing CST-100

Boeing CST-100 in space

Boeing w/ ISS
The Boeing CST-100

Initial work on the CST-100 was done with the help of Bigelow Aerospace, a startup that's looking to set up a series of inflatable space station hotels in orbit.  The CST-100 bears an even more striking resemblance to the shuttered Orion project than the DragonX, however the CST-100 officially has no Orion heritage.

The CST-100 is designed to spend up to two months in orbit in free flight and up to seven months in orbit docked.  It can transport a maximum of seven crew members.  Initial blueprints call for a craft 4.56-meter (15.0 ft) in diameter.  Length including the service module (which contains cargo and supplies) is roughly 5.03-meters (16.5 ft).  It is intended to be reused for a maximum of ten missions.

The Crew Dragon is slighlty longer -- 6.1-meters (20 ft) -- but has a smaller diameter 3.7-meters (12.1 ft).  SpaceX declares its craft "fully reusable", although it will require refurbishing after ten flights.

The Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) was also in the running for the program, as recently as 2011, but was not awarded funding in the latest round.  That leaves SNC's bid to deploy the DreamChaser -- a spaceplane design -- in jeopardy.

It's possible that Boeing may eventually look to collaborate with SNC to differentiate from SpaceX, which also is fielding a capsule-based design.  Boeing is partnered with Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT), which is, in turn, partnered with SNC.

Boeing may also look to share some of its windfall with SpaceX, who it has mentioned as a potential launch partner.  Boeing may look to test both SpaceX's Falcon9 and Blue Origin's BE-3 successor on its initial CST-100 launches.

Boeing mission plan
Boeing may use SpaceX as a rocket provider. [Image Source: Boeing]

NASA's testing of Boeing and SpaceX's launch vehicles will consist of five certification stages, according to NASA administrators.  These stages include:
  • a baseline stage
  • design certification
  • flight test readines
  • operation readiness
  • certification review
Launch America

At a press conference at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden remarked:

From day one, the Obama Administration made clear that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on other nations to get into space.  Thanks to the leadership of President Obama, the hard work of our NASA and industry teams, and support from Congress, today we are one step closer to launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia by 2017.

Turning over low-Earth orbit transportation to private industry will also allow NASA to focus on an even more ambitious mission – sending humans to Mars.

NASA Launch America

NASA's program manager for the Commerical Crew program, Kathy Lueders, adds:

We are excited to see our industry partners close in on operational flights to the International Space Station, an extraordinary feat industry and the NASA family began just four years ago.

This space agency has long been a technology innovator, and now we also can say we are an American business innovator, spurring job creation and opening up new markets to the private sector. The agency and our partners have many important steps to finish, but we have shown we can do the tough work required and excel in ways few would dare to hope.

SpaceX CEO and super-genius Elon Musk was quick to congratulate his rival Boeing on their award and thank NASA for the award to SpaceX.  He wrote on Twitter: John Elbon, Boeing's vice president and general manager of Space Exploration, boasted:

Boeing has been part of every American human space flight program, and we’re honored that NASA has chosen us to continue that legacy.  The CST-100 offers NASA the most cost-effective, safe and innovative solution to U.S.-based access to low-Earth orbit.

Boeing says it plans to build three CST-100 modules and will do a launch pad abort test in 2016, two years from now.

Both Boeing and SpaceX are required under their contracts to send at least one astronaut into space on a test flight by 2017.  After than initial ordeal is over, their award amount will be based on their number of manned missions.  Each awardee is required to participate in at least two and up to six manned ferry missions to the ISS.  They will also remain on call as a lifeboat to the ISS.

Sources: NASA [Press Release], Elon Musk on Twitter, Boeing [press release]

"We’re Apple. We don’t wear suits. We don’t even own suits." -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs

Copyright 2017 DailyTech LLC. - RSS Feed | Advertise | About Us | Ethics | FAQ | Terms, Conditions & Privacy Information | Kristopher Kubicki