It’s been pretty exciting watching commercial spaceflight getting off the ground. It’s gone slower than I’d like, but this is untested ground, after all. Commercial utilization of the ISS has been frustratingly slow, hampered by the reduced crew size following the Bush-era reduction in the ISS plan and further hampered by the red tape involved in getting an experiment to the ISS via NASA. That red tape is so slow in large part because NASA’s whole philosophy towards getting stuff on Station was developed during the Shuttle era, and heavily favors crew safety over other considerations. This is completely understandable, of course, but it means experiments can wait years to fly, which makes it all but impossible to do follow-up experiments on the same grant as the first one, and effectively forces student projects to be simple, standalone experiments.
NanoRacks, a Texas company that works with NASA to fly experiments commercially aboard the ISS, has found a way to simplify this process. Instead of each entity seeking to fly an experiment having to go through the whole process with NASA, NanoRacks takes care of all the paperwork and testing, and is able to greatly expedite it by offering experiment equipment that’s already approved by NASA and easily modified to suit a particular experiment’s needs without requiring a full recertification, and also designed to fit easily into an astronaut’s busy schedule. They also provide nanosatellite deployment services, via a dispenser aboard the ISS that can be loaded via the Kibo lab’s airlock.
And now, they’re looking to expand those services they already offer. With the ISS crew complement set to increase when Starliner and Dragon 2 enter service, having more ways to get customers for ISS is very much a good thing, and NanoRacks is keen to keep at the forefront of that. They have just signed a deal with Boeing and NASA to build another airlock for the space station. NanoRacks will build the Airlock Module, and Boeing will build its Passive Common Berthing Mechanism, which will allow it to be permanently installed on the Tranquility node (after PMA-3 is relocated in support of the Commercial Crew program). Airlock will permit larger payloads to be deployed than can currently be serviced via Kibo’s airlock, and also free NanoRacks from reliance on a government operated module.
If all goes well, Airlock Module is expected to launch in 2019, although NanoRacks has not yet procured a launch vehicle or been assigned a position in the ISS launch manifest.
Early this morning, a Delta IV rocket blasted off, placing the next two Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites into geosynchronous transfer orbit. These payloads, built by Orbital ATK for the USAF, will augment ground radar tracking allowing better prediction of collisions between objects in orbit. As Near Earth Orbit grows increasingly crowded, this will only become more important as time goes on. Here’s the full capture of the United Launch Alliance livestream; skip ahead to 25 minutes for the actual launch:
At last, the CST-100 has a proper name! Following the tradition of names like Stratoliner (the first airliner with a pressurized cabin) and Dreamliner (the 787, Boeing’s latest airliner), the CST-100 has been dubbed the Starliner.
You can watch the full ceremony, officially opening Boeing’s Commercial Cargo and Crew Processing Facility (C3PF), the former Orbiter Processing Facility 3, at Kennedy Space Center, here:
Two big events just started toward the Commercial Crew effort. First, aboard the ISS, crewmembers completed the first of three spacewalks in preparation for the upcoming International Docking Adapters that will be attached to the two Pressurized Mating Adapters attached to the Harmony node of the ISS to allow docking by Dragon and CST-100. Like the PMAs, both adapters are furnished by Boeing, and they will be available at the forward and zenith ports, allowing for up to two commercial crew vehicles at a time while not obstructing the ports required for the commercial cargo vehicles.
Yesterday’s work was mostly rewiring, and took six hours and 41 minutes. This was the 29th US spacewalk from the ISS. Here’s a planning animation with detailed explanation followed by a time-lapse of the whole thing:
And Friday, back on Earth, ground was broken for the new crew access structure at LC-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Station. LC-41 serves the Atlas V rocket, and this will support the CST-100 spacecraft.
SpaceX is also making preparations, although as a private company they are playing their cards a little more closely to their chests. We know, however, that they are getting very close to their flyback booster concept, and have made arrangements for a set of landing pads at Cape Canaveral.
Commercial Crew will not likely fly before 2017, but that’s getting closer every day. 😉
The Government Accounting Office (GAO) is an independent agency within the US government that acts as a sort of fiscal watchdog, both conducting its own audits and also ruling on protests issued by the loser in a competitive bid process. GAO protests used to be rare, on the basis that government contractors didn’t want to risk irritating the program office by delaying the work and forcing money be spent on the protest investigation, but they’ve become far more common in recent years — almost routine. Still, Sierra Nevada’s protest surprised me a little given that they were already behind schedule on CCiCap, and as NASA pointed out in the Request for Proposals (RFP), it was critical that the winning options have a strong chance of being ready when the current Soyuz contract expires in 2017. The alternative would be to spend large sums of money on more Soyuz seats (which Congress has effectively forbidden) or, worse, abandon the US segment of the ISS temporarily.
So when they lost CCtCap to the other two contenders (Boeing and SpaceX), Sierra Nevada filed a protest, alleging that NASA acted improperly in placing so much importance on schedule, and arguing that Boeing’s solution is too expensive. The GAO has now completed their investigation and issued their response: they’re rejecting the protest, on the basis that there was no impropriety on the schedule thing, since NASA was quite up-front about that being a requirement, and furthermore, they revealed that far from Boeing being the second choice after SpaceX, Boeing was actually NASA’s *first* choice, despite having the most expensive bid. NASA considered CST-100 to be the strongest solution, technologically, and also the strongest in terms of management and safety. The subtext is that NASA sees it as the least risky solution (risk meaning both risk to passengers and risk to the program actually completing). And that meant that the real competition for Sierra Nevada was never Boeing. It was SpaceX. And SpaceX’s solution is much cheaper than theirs. Boeing won on technical merits. SpaceX won on price. Sierra Nevada lost on both.
It’s unfortunate, because Dream Chaser really is a gorgeous vehicle, and it could be a very fine spacecraft. NASA was in the difficult position of choosing between three of the strongest spacecraft proposals since Shuttle, and ultimately someone had to be left out. All is not lost for Sierra Nevada, though, as they’ve already signed a deal to provide a sub-scale Dream Chaser for the StratoLaunch project, and rumor is it they’ve been in negotiations with the Japanese as well; their H-2 rocket would be more than adequate to boost the Dream Chaser, and it would give them their own access to space. An inexpensive and relatively low risk way of growing your own space program. So here’s hoping we get to see that swoopy spaceplane fly again, this time in outer space, for real. 😉
US GAO rejects protest of space taxi deal with Boeing, SpaceX
Following close on the heels of the CCtCap announcement, United Launch Alliance (which is jointly owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and operates the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets) announced an exclusive partnership with the secretive space startup Blue Origin. Blue Origin has been experimenting with rocket engines, but has played their cards close to their chest, making it difficult to independently assess their efforts. That may be changing. They will develop the Blue Engine 4 (BE-4) specifically to replace the Russian-built RD-180 that powers the Atlas V.
It will be difficult to beat the $10 million price tag Energomash charges for the engine, and also difficult to beat the performance; Russia is presently the world leader in staged combustion kerosene/LOX engines. Blue Origin has been working with methane, and this engine is expected to use liquified natural gas and LOX; this could mean substantial changes to the Atlas V’s tankage and the pad support equipment. Still, it would help their competitiveness to free themselves from dependence on a Russian supplier, and reduce the risk of political meddling in the program, and it’s absolutely a good deal for Blue Origin.
Things are about to get interesting in human spaceflight again. 😉
SpaceflightNow: ULA taps Blue Origin for powerful new rocket engine
While we’re on the subject, Atlas V’s most recent launch was just yesterday. It lofted the mysterious CLIO satellite for an undisclosed US government customer.
This is a bummer for Sierra Nevada and their lovely Dream Chaser spaceplane, but in all honesty it’s what the majority of observers were expecting. Boeing and SpaceX will now move towards man-rating and will begin flying crew from Florida to ISS and back by 2017. The two providers are expected to carry out this man-rating process; NASA is not doing it for them. NASA will support certification reviews, FRR and so forth, and contract awards will be paid based on meeting various milestones. Both teams are expected to conduct at least one crewed flight to the ISS with a NASA astronaut on board prior to being considered operational. This is very similar to how the cargo program was operated, and I’m excited to see where they both go from here. 😉