Today, Boeing unveiled the new blue launch-and-entry suit to be worn by crew of the CST-100 Starliner. It’s quite an impressive step forward from the ACES suits worn on Shuttle, designed to be much more practical, which should improve compliance. (One problem identified on the Shuttle program was that crews almost never were fully suited up until half way through the reentry, because a) it took too long and b) the gloves made it difficult to operate equipment.) They’re also much lighter and apparently vastly more comfortable, not requiring the liquid-cooled undergarment to keep the crewman from sweating away too much of their body weight while waiting to fly. Here, it’s modeled by Boeing’s director of Starliner Crew and Mission Systems, Chris Ferguson, who is a former Shuttle astronaut himself:
Now, this suit isn’t intended for spacewalking. Like the ACES suits and the Russian Sokol suits, it’s only intended to protect the crewmembers from an accidental depressurization of the capsule. It also lacks a rigid helmet and a parachute pack, two features required on the Shuttle suits, but which should not be relevant in a capsule, where egress isn’t really feasible but the capsule itself is far more survivable than the Shuttle ever was in the event of a serious mishap.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get really excited about the prospect of American spacecraft flying into orbit once more. 😉 It’s been a long time coming.
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:
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!
Spacewalkers Terry Virts and Butch Wilmore completed the third of three spacewalks to prepare the ISS for the arrival of the International Docking Adapters, to be delivered on the next Dragon cargo vessel. The highlight of today’s activity was installation of the Common Communications for Visiting Vehicles (C2V2) system, which will support the two-way voice communications that visiting crew vehicles will require, and installation of retroreflectors used to guide docking vehicles. The system will also be available for cargo vehicles to transition to, rather that the hodgepodge of systems currently used, but there’s no timeline for when that might happen.
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. 😉