Dragon 2 successfully blasted itself off the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Station this morning, looking quite tiny between the big lightning rods that normally protect Falcon 9, and splashed down in the Atlantic about a mile away. Looks like a very wild ride, although it would have been survivable. Which is, after all, the point.
The test was successful, though as one might expect from a test, not everything went precisely as planned. One of the engines shut down prematurely, leading to MECO about half a second early, and a downrange distance a bit shy of the plan. It was still far enough away from the pad to protect the crew against an exploding Falcon 9. SpaceX engineers will have plenty of work going over all the engineering data they collected and working out what needs improvement.
Congrats on a great test, SpaceX!
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
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. 😉
Boeing unveiled the interior of their CST-100 a while ago; now SpaceX has revealed their first flight Dragon V2 capsule, with enlarged pods to carry the SuperDraco engines that will serve both as escape system and return rockets. This capsule will be first of a kind in that it will make a fully powered landing — no parachutes or gliding, although parachutes are still provided as a backup. And the interior looks nice too. Check out it!
SpaceX Falcon V2 Unveiling Photos
One thing I find slightly amusing — Boeing modeled their CST-100 interior after the 787 Dreamliner, while SpaceX modeled the Dragon interior on the Tesla sports car. Both companies evidently know how to use their interior design teams. 😉
Sierra Nevada has released more information about the first drop test of the Dream Chaser aerodynamic test article. The flight accomplished all of the test requirements perfectly, conforming precisely to the glide path and making a pinpoint landing right on the runway centerline. Unfortunately, the landing gear didn’t cooperate as well. Refurbished from an F-5 Tiger, the left main gear did not deploy, causing the aircraft to skid off the runway. However, the damage to the vehicle was only superficial, and evaluating data revealed that if there had been a human pilot on board, he or she would have walked away unscathed. Sierra Nevada at this time does not even anticipate a delay in the test schedule, and expect to make the next drop test later this year. In fact, the flight data prior to the touchdown anomaly was so good they might even accelerate the schedule, going to a piloted flight on the next drop. However, it’s too soon to make that call, and NASA will be involved in it.
This particular flight is of special interest to me, as I was involved in the project that built its main computer, many years ago, for a program that was cancelled. It’s not the computer they’ll use for the orbital version of the vehicle, but it’s a computer that was ready to use when they needed it, and as you can see it performed beautifully. It’s nice to finally see it actually fly. 😉
Of the three competitors for the Commercial Crew effort, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is the one most evocative of the Shuttle era. It’s a lifting body derived from the cancelled USAF HL-20 program, all streamlined with swooping lines and the ability to glide to a pinpoint landing on a runway.
But it seems to have suffered a setback. Hopefully a minor one, but during automated pilotless approach-and-landing testing at Edwards Air Force Base, the vehicle made its first landing with what looked like pinpoint precision, steering to the correct point, flaring at the correct moment, and touching down at precisely the correct spot on the runway. But something went wrong with the left main gear, which is derived from the F-5E Tiger and not intended for the final versions of the spacecraft. Sierra Nevada isn’t releasing much information yet, but apparently something went wrong causing the vehicle to flip over on the runway. There is no word yet how severe the damage is, nor when (or if) they would expect to have it fixed and the test article back in service. Sierra Nevada seems to be playing their cards close at the moment. At any rate, it is a disappointing event, but there’s no reason to count them out at this point. Everything up to the main gear touchdown was absolutely picture perfect, and they did acquire some excellent telemetry.
Dream Chaser suffers landing gear failure after first flight
Boeing is giving the public the first look inside the CST-100, in Phase 2 of the interior layout. You can clearly see the influence of their airliner business, which they’ve not previously consulted on spacecraft; it even has the same blue LED background lighting as the Dreamliner. The display panels come from Boeing St Louis (the former McDonnell-Douglas), and the exterior shell comes from Bigelow Aerospace. NASA loaned a couple of astronauts to come in, put on ACES suits from the Shuttle program, and try it out as part of the rapid prototyping effort. The configuration you’ll see in this article has five seats; CST-100 advertises a crew of seven, but for test purposes, this prototype was configured with two seats removed for increased stowage space.
Boeing reveals interior of new commercial space capsule