Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Plot Thickens

NASA commercial crew program manager Ed Mango today at the commercial crew summit conference at Kennedy Space Center. Image source: NASA.

Back on July 23, I wrote about the competition between SpaceX and Blue Origin for the future of Kennedy Space Center's historic launch pad 39A.

In an updated version of his July 23 article, NBC News space reporter Alan Boyle included this quote from a SpaceX representative about their plans for 39A:

SpaceX spokeswoman Christina Ra told NBC News that 39A wouldn't take the place of a future commercial launch facility. "SpaceX would focus on our commercial satellite customers with 39A but could launch any mission from our East Coast manifest. We could also use it for launching crew and Falcon Heavy,” Ra said in an email.

That last sentence was a curious clarification, because it asserted that SpaceX might use 39A for any vehicle in their fleet.

Two articles in the August 1 Florida Today updated the competition for 39A.

In an article about comments by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, journalist James Dean reported that NASA was also looking for a secondary tenant at neighboring 39B, along with the agency's Space Launch System.

Bolden said NASA had talked to United Launch Alliance about launching crews from pad 39B instead of modifying its existing Atlas V launch pad at the Cape.

He wasn’t sure if a final decision had been made.

“We would like to have multiple vehicles (there),” he said. “Interestingly, no one yet has expressed a desire to take us up on that offer.”

This is intriguing.

Would the chances for the commercial crew bids by ULA partners Boeing and Sierra Nevada be improved if they agree to go to 39B? That might explain why SpaceX clarified their position to indicate they would launch their commercial crew vehicles from 39A.

All three companies anticipate flying to the Bigelow Aerospace habitats later in the decade, so their business model doesn't rely solely on NASA. But it's interesting that they would all agree to consider assuming the burden for legacy equipment designed fifty years ago. That includes not just 39A, but implicitly the Vehicle Assembly Building's High Bay 1, a transporter-crawler with a mobile launch platform, and a Launch Control Center firing room.

It might also explain why ULA wrote the letter in support of Blue Origin's bid to be the manager of a multi-user 39A. If ULA is at 39B, they wouldn't want to see SpaceX at 39A. Would Ford want to see a Chevrolet dealership move in next door?

Politicians Frank Wolf and Robert Aderholt, both members of Congress with ties to ULA partners Boeing and Lockheed Martin, wrote a letter to Bolden opposing the lease of 39A to one company. They implicitly endorsed the Blue Origin multi-user bid backed by ULA.

It appears that ULA, well versed in D.C. political lobbying, is pulling out all the stops to prevent SpaceX from taking over 39A.

It may be that ULA never goes to 39B, nor cares if Blue Origin ever launches even a bottle rocket off 39A. SpaceX is becoming the commercial launch industry's juggernaut. In addition to all their other plans, SpaceX is preparing to send their reusable Falcon-9 rocket technology to Las Cruces, New Mexico for test flights. Blue Origin is also working on reusable rockets, but seems years away from any flights at KSC.

So it appears that ULA and Blue Origin have become strange bedfellows, because they have a common enemy in SpaceX.

Space Florida sent a letter July 31 to Bolden criticizing efforts by Wolf and Aderholt. President and CEO Frank DiBello wrote:

Recently, key members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Commerce, Justice and Science appear to have inserted themselves into a competitive process already underway, and moreover, are taking the role of advocating the merits, feasibility and timeliness of a multi-use launch pad where deconfliction around launch may be problematic to meet multiple customer requirements. This is a concept that has been proposed for decades and yet has never been implemented successfully by the government, much less the more cost conscious and deeply competitive private sector. There are many valid technical reasons for this, but the impact of this attempt to influence the ongoing process, is to slow the process towards turnover of this excess asset to commercial operators that are attempting to be market responsive in a timely and cost-competitive way.

For the uninitiated, Space Florida is a state agency created “for the purposes of fostering the growth and development of a sustainable and world-leading space industry in Florida,” according to its web site.

DiBello continued:

... [M]uch of the motivation and rationale for this intrusion finds its origins in launch vehicle communities that will stand to benefit from slowing the rapid progress that the commercial space industry is making. This at the same time as several other Congressional voices are actively seeking to transfer the budget responsibility for the development the ground support infrastructure at KSC to the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama. It is this budget line that also supports NASA efforts to further accommodate the growth of the nation’s commercial space activity, which is primarily centered at KSC. This too would constitute a step backward for NASA and this nation’s commercial space competitiveness.

Huntsville neighbors Aderholt's district. Boeing and Lockheed Martin have contracts at Marshall.

The second article in today's paper reported the commercial crew summit conference scheduled for this morning at Kennedy Space Center. The meeting was to outline for the three remaining competitors the final certification process beginning later this year.

The article noted, “The draft proposal leaves open the possibility that extra seats on the flights could be sold to space tourists.” Another interesting notion. Who would sell the seats? Who would train the tourists? Where would they stay on the ISS? Russia has flown tourists on the Soyuz to their ISS modules through Space Adventures.

The Bigelow habitats will have space tourists along with customers from nations and private industry. So commercial crew flights with tourists could be considered pathfinder technology for Bigelow.

UPDATE August 2, 2013 — Reading back through my archives, I found this September 2010 article about Boeing and Space Adventures agreeing to market space tourism and other commercial flights to non-governmental passengers aboard the CST-100.

Perhaps that's the space tourism component referenced in yesterday's draft proposal. Boeing (and others) could sell rides aboard the vehicles to help defray operational costs to the ISS. The customers might not stay long, just go along for the ride.

This evening, Florida Today reported on the summit's first day.

Watch the video that opened today's commercial crew summit. Video source: NASA.

From Alan Shepard’s Redstone rocket and Freedom 7 capsule through the space shuttle, a video showed the first launches of each American spacecraft that has carried people into orbit.

Ed Mango, head of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, told an industry audience Thursday at Kennedy Space Center that one of their vehicles would someday be added to that highlight reel.

“The people in this room . . . are going to put the next U.S. vehicle into low Earth orbit,” he said, prompting applause.

A run at that achievement will start with the hefty contract NASA plans to award next July to one or more companies.

Called the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract, it will include orders for at least two flights of four-person crews to the International Space Station, the first of which NASA hopes to fly by late 2017.

Those will be preceded by at least one crewed test flight to the station, leading to final certification of the systems as safe enough to fly crews to the ISS.

The NASA press release about today's meeting opens with this quote:

“No one person, no one company, no one government agency, has a monopoly on the competence, the missions, or the requirements for the space program.”

— Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the United States

It's a shame no one thought years ago to turn this competition into a reality show. I find out quite entertaining.

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