Thursday, April 21, 2011

The New Space Race

An artist's concept of the SpaceX Dragon crew vehicle in orbit. Image source:

As reported here on Monday, NASA awarded four companies contracts to proceed with the next phase of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.

Boeing got the largest amount, $92.3 million, to continue work on the CST-100 crew vehicle.

SpaceX received $75 million to advance development of its launch abort system and crew vehicle.

CCDev hopes to accelerate development of a domestic vehicle to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, ending U.S. reliance on Russia's Soyuz craft (a decision made in January 2004 by the Bush administration).

Right now, it appears that SpaceX has a definite lead.

SpaceX made history last December 8 when it launched the Falcon 9 with the Dragon spacecraft. Dragon made two complete orbits before splashing down in the Pacific one mile from its intended target.

In an April 19 press release, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said, "With NASA's support, SpaceX will be ready to fly its first manned mission in 2014."

SpaceX plans its second Dragon flight in September. The test crew vehicle would approach the ISS.

Boeing's April 18 press release has this quote:

"We are combining lessons learned and best practices from commercial airplanes, satellites and launch systems with those from human spaceflight programs such as the space shuttle and the International Space Station to design, deliver and fly the CST-100 in 2015," said John Elbon, vice president and program manager, Boeing Commercial Crew Programs.

Bringing up the rear is Orion, the one-time cancelled Constellation crew vehicle kept alive by Congress. According to Aviation Week, "If all goes according to schedule, piloted operations of the Orion could begin as early as 2016, Lockheed Martin says."

The article reports:

Lockheed Martin has cut out an entire test article from the Orion crew exploration vehicle that it is recasting in a new role as deep-space Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), combining test objectives for the remaining articles in an effort to keep the vehicle within the tight schedule set by Congress.

It's not unusual for press releases to engage in a bit of promotional hype. But of the three, only SpaceX has flown its vehicle, and will again soon.

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