Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sierra Nevada to Fly Dream Chaser on Stratolaunch

A computer animation of a Stratolaunch mission with an Orbital Sciences payload. Video source: Vulcan Inc. YouTube channel.

Confirming a report tweeted earlier today by Jeff Foust at Space News, Sierra Nevada Corporation issued a press release this afternoon announcing that a scale version of Dream Chaser will be developed to fly on the Stratolaunch.

As designed, the Dream Chaser-Stratolauncher human spaceflight system can carry a crew of three astronauts to LEO destinations. This versatile system can also be tailored for un-crewed space missions, including science missions, light cargo transportation or suborbital point-to-point transportation. The scaled crewed spacecraft design is based on SNC’s full-scale Dream Chaser vehicle which, for the past four years, has undergone development and flight tests as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Chuck Beames, president, Vulcan Aerospace Corp and executive director for Stratolaunch Systems said, “Combining a scaled version of SNC’s Dream Chaser with the Stratolaunch air launch system could provide a highly responsive capability with the potential to reach a variety of LEO destinations and return astronauts or payloads to a U.S. runway within 24 hours.”

“This relationship would expand our portfolio to include the highly flexible Stratolaunch system for launching reusable crewed or uncrewed spacecraft, or for rapid satellite constellation deployment,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems.

In addition to supporting development of human spaceflight capability, SNC studied satellite launch options and mechanisms, as well as point-to-point transportation options using the Stratolaunch launch system with a Dream Chaser spacecraft derivative. The Stratolaunch system is uniquely designed to allow for maximum operational flexibility and payload delivery from several possible operational sites, while minimizing mission constraints such as range availability and weather.

This post will be updated tomorrow once more information is available.

UPDATE October 1, 2014 9:40 AM EDTAlan Boyle at NBC News releases the first artist's concept of the Dream Chaser/Stratolaunch combo.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Retro Saturday: Message to Employees of NACA

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: Jeff Quitney YouTube channel.

On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act.

In his signing statement, Eisenhower wrote:

The present National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), with its large and competent staff and well-equipped laboratories, will provide the nucleus for the NASA. The NACA has an established record of research performance and of cooperation with the Armed Services. The combination of space exploration responsibilities with the NACA's traditional aeronautical research functions is a natural evolution.

NASA would officially begin on October 1, 1958, a little more than two months later.

In honor of NASA's pending birthday next week, Retro Saturday presents a ten-minute film prepared for NACA employees on the eve of their agency's demise.

Hugh Dryden, the Director of NACA, introduces the viewer to T. Keith Glennan, NASA's first administrator. Dryden remained as deputy administrator, and was involved in the internal debates in the spring of 1961 when the Kennedy administration decided to propose a manned lunar program.

The film, apparently produced in September 1958, was to reassure NACA employees as to their role in the new NASA.

Click here to read the Eisenhower Library archives on the creation of NASA.

President Eisenhower commissions Dr. T. Keith Glennan, right, as the first administrator for NASA and Dr. Hugh L. Dryden as deputy administrator. Image source: NASA.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Try, Try Again

Click the arrow to watch a 2012 Dream Chaser concept of operations animation. Video source: SNCspacesystems YouTube channel.

Ten days after NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX as their commercial crew vendors, Sierra Nevada Corporation announced today in a press release that the company has filed a legal challenge with the Government Accountability Office to challenge the decision.

In its 51 year history SNC has never filed a legal challenge to a government contract award. However, in the case of the CCtCap award, NASA’s own Source Selection Statement and debrief indicate that there are serious questions and inconsistencies in the source selection process. SNC, therefore, feels that there is no alternative but to institute a legal challenge.

During the September 16 announcement, NASA officials declined to comment on the merits of the three proposals, saying that would have to wait until after the competitors were briefed.

Apparently SNC got its briefing. The press release states:

Importantly, the official NASA solicitation for the CCtCap contract prioritized price as the primary evaluation criteria for the proposals, setting it equal to the combined value of the other two primary evaluation criteria: mission suitability and past performance. SNC’s Dream Chaser proposal was the second lowest priced proposal in the CCtCap competition. SNC’s proposal also achieved mission suitability scores comparable to the other two proposals. In fact, out of a possible 1,000 total points, the highest ranked and lowest ranked offerors were separated by a minor amount of total points and other factors were equally comparable.

How could SNC knows its proposal was "the second lowest priced" unless they'd been briefed about all three proposals? Unless they're guessing, based on the announced awards to Boeing ($4.2 billion) and SpaceX ($2.6 billion).

If the latter is true, then as I wrote on September 17 the total dollar amounts are fairly meaningless, because each involves unique tests and “special studies,” as well as the assumption that each vendor receives the maximum six flights. Each vendor is guaranteed only two, and each mission will be a separate work order.

According to Aviation Week:

The company said late Friday that its bid in the NASA Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCTCap) was $900 million less than the bid submitted by Boeing, which won a contract worth as much as $4.2 billion to complete development, test fly and operate its CST-100 crew capsule. At the same time, SNC said, its proposal was “near equivalent [in] technical and past performance” source-selection scoring.

If one wants to indulge in fanciful speculation and assume NASA management capable of Machiavellianism, we can amuse ourselves with the notion that NASA deliberately violated federal procurement guidelines in selecting Boeing, knowing that if they'd gone with SNC then key Congressional porkers on the House and Senate space subcommittees who receive generous campaign contributions from Boeing would howl. If the GAO finds that SNC deserved the second contract, then Congress can't blame NASA, only the GAO.

No, I don't think so, either. Just indulging a fancy.

Elsewhere in NewSpace, NASA issued a press release today announcing a Request For Proposals for the next round of commercial cargo deliveries to the International Space Station.

Under the Commercial Resupply Services 2 RFP, NASA intends to award contracts with one or more companies for six or more flights per contract. As with current resupply flights, these missions would launch from U.S. spaceports, and the contracted services would include logistical and research cargo delivery and return to and from the space station through fiscal year 2020, with the option to purchase additional launches through 2024 ...

This RFP is open to companies able to demonstrate safe, reliable launch and rendezvous capabilities with the station. The contract will fulfill NASA's need to procure cargo delivery services for pressurized and unpressurized cargo delivery, disposal, return, or any combination, to the space station using U.S. commercial carriers after the initial Commercial Resupply Service contracts conclude.

SNC has proposed autonomous cargo or mixed crew/cargo versions of Dream Chaser, possibly in partnership with the European Space Agency or the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences currently deliver cargo to the ISS. The Orbital Sciences Cygnus burns up on re-entry, so it's used to dispose of trash and hazardous waste generated by ISS operations. SpaceX is the only vehicle on Planet Earth capable of returning significant amounts of experiments, samples, and parts from the ISS. (The Russian Soyuz has a very small cargo capability.) The SpaceX Dragon currently lands in the ocean; after its May 2014 splashdown Dragon suffered a small amount of seawater seepage into the vehicle, although no cargo was damaged.

Dream Chaser theoretically can land at any runway of significant length, and would probably be a much smoother landing for sensitive biological cargo than bobbing about in the ocean.

But SpaceX is working on a crew version of Dragon that would land at a Cape Canaveral pad using thrusters and landing legs. That technology logically could transfer to cargo Dragon landings.

Ain't competition grand.

Round 2 proposals are due on November 14, with selections anticipated by May 2015.

Dream Chaser is alive and well, temporarily on life support thanks to international partners. The new commercial cargo competition might result in the “baby orbiter” launching from Cape Canaveral after all.

UPDATE September 27, 2014Jeff Foust of Space News reports that, “Under government procurement regulations, NASA has 30 days to file a response to the protest. GAO is required to rule on the protest no later than 100 days after filing, or Jan. 5, 2015.”

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Sierra Nevada Still Chasing the Dream

An artist's concept of the Dream Chaser in orbit. Image source: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

Aviation Week reports that Sierra Nevada Corporation may file an appeal to protest their loss of a NASA commercial crew award earlier this month.

[SNC Corporate Vice President of Space Systems Mark Sirangelo] said the company may file a formal protest of NASA’s decision to reject its commercial crew bid with the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The deadline for a bid protest, which could lead to a reconsideration of the contract awards, is Sept. 26, and Sirangelo suggested Sierra Nevada may have financial and technical grounds for the action. A final corporate decision, in consultation with the company’s lawyers, was planned following a meeting Sept. 25.

SNC still has development deals with the European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The article quoted Sirangelo as saying that “Sierra Nevada will bid on the second-round NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) contract to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.” SNC has proposed various versions of Dream Chaser, including a strictly autonomous version that could serve an orbital microgravity laboratory and land by remote control.

The Denver Post reports that SNC “laid off about 90 employees from its Dream Chaser program” after losing the NASA contract bid.

Space Systems chief Mark Sirangelo said many of those let go had been hired in anticipation of the NASA contract.

“We did do a workforce reduction, but it was a relatively minor one compared to what it might have been,” he said.

The layoffs represent a 9.4 percent reduction in Space Systems' Colorado workforce, he said. Sirangelo said the laid-off workers will receive severance, but he would not disclose details of the package.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Station to Station

Click the arrow to watch the live chat. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Astronaut Cady Coleman was at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting today in New York City to participate in a live chat with former President Bill Clinton and the International Space Station crew.

ISS crew member Reid Wiseman noted his German and Russian crewmates, and said they have become his best friends. Clinton suggested sending Congress to ISS to learn that lesson; Coleman jokingly asked if he'd want them back.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Click the arrow to watch excerpts of the speeches at the groundbreaking. Video source: UTBrownsville YouTube channel.

Click the arrow to watch media coverage of the groundbreaking event. Video source: Brownsville Herald YouTube channel.

There is some young student in the sixth grade in an elementary school who never in his or her life thought that they would be part of the space program. But because of the vision of these men and women in this audience, they have the potential not just to change their lives, but to change the world that they live in.

— Texas Governor Rick Perry

Why is it Rick Perry saying this and not Florida Governor Rick Scott?

That's the question Space Coast leaders should be asking themselves today after SpaceX founder Elon Musk and south Texas officials participated Monday in the groundbreaking ceremony for the company's new commercial spaceport at Boca Chica Beach, Texas, near Brownsville and Harlingen.

In sports parlance, Brevard County blew the home field advantage.

Fingers can be pointed in many directions.

Some locals will give their typical knee-jerk reflex and blame President Barack Obama. I've heard locals spin bizarre conspiracy theories, such as the President or one of his staff secretly owns SpaceX stock, or their alternative favorite, “Obama hates the space program.”

But in the reality-based world, it boils down to the entitlement attitude inbred to the local culture that believes it has some sort of divine right to a monopoly stranglehold on U.S. space launches.

This was typified by a bizarre March 11, 2010 Florida Today editorial which demanded that Obama should mandate that commercial companies could only launch from the Space Coast. “The president should make KSC the commercial hub and mandate it in his policy.”

Imagine the national outrage if a President tried to dictate that automobiles could only be manufactured in Detroit.

Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Stations are government operations run by people who for decades have run their facilities like personal fiefdoms. An example can be found in this September 21, 2014 Houston Chronicle article about SpaceX leasing KSC's Pad 39A:

This spring at Kennedy Space Center in Florida NASA and SpaceX staged a ceremony as the company took control of the historic launch pad from which Apollo 11 rocketed to the moon. SpaceX plans to launch its Falcon 9 Heavy, which could compete with NASA’s own big rocket, from here. Officials made nice during the ceremony, but behind the scene tensions bubbled up.

The new guys, according to NASA workers, acted like they owned the place. They were “rude, arrogant egotistical smart asses,” one NASA old timer said. “I don’t mind young people, which they all were. But they just acted like they had it all figured out, like they just have the world by the tail.”

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell flashes “V” for Victory at the lease ceremony April 14, 2014 at KSC's Pad 39A. Image source: Houston Chronicle.

The bureaucracy-laden obstinance that pervades both facilities has hindered SpaceX's ability to attract commercial satellite launches.

On the Cape side, AsiaSat executives were restricted from accessing their own commercial satellites earlier this year because of “lots of restrictions and regulations” — security clearances and permissions for non-U.S. citizens to work or visit the site, and regulations that limit how long people can be at certain locations, according to this September 15 Space News report.

Commenting on SpaceX plans for Boca Chica, AsiaSat CEO William Wade told Space News:

“It’s unfortunate for the Cape,” Wade said. “[SpaceX] will have government missions [in Florida], but the commercial side of their business is going to continue to grow. I think it’s a shame that they aren’t in a position to feel comfortable that they would get the support here that they need to use facilities. It’s unfortunate, but they have to do what they feel is right for their business.”

Space Florida, a state agency charged with bringing commercial launch companies to the Space Coast, proposed a new commercial spaceport at Shiloh, an abandoned farm community north of Launch Complex 39 in undeveloped Kennedy Space Center land near the Volusia County line.

The idea was to have a facility that could be leased by SpaceX and other commercial companies not subject to the government's regulatory burdens. The problem, though, was convincing NASA to give up the land to the State of Florida; so long as the land is owned by the federal government, it's subject to federal government regulations.

KSC officials responded with their own 20-year master plan that shows proposed new pads 39C and 39D for commercial users — but nothing at Shiloh.

Local environmentalists have protested Shiloh with unsubstantiated claims of “total devastation of an already endangered estuarine environment.” NASA's proposed 39C and 39D appear intended to appease the organized environmental opposition, which indicated it would not object to a site south of State Route 402 — but still controlled by the federal government.

Space Florida theoretically is led by Governor Rick Scott who heads its Board of Directors, but in reality daily operations are run by widely respected President and CEO Frank DiBello.

March 8, 2013 ... Texas Governor Rick Perry meets with SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Image source: Flickr.

To my knowledge, Scott and Musk have never met. But Rick Perry stepped up last year to personally court Musk — not just SpaceX, but also Tesla Motors, another Musk-owned company. On March 8, 2013, Musk addressed the Texas Legislature and met with Perry.

At Monday's groundbreaking, Perry announced the State of Texas would invest $9 million in a new facility called STARGATE at the planned University of Texas - Rio Grande Valley planned to open in the fall of 2015.

To quote from the University of Texas press release:

The STARGATE facility will be a radio frequency technology park located adjacent to the SpaceX launch site command center. SpaceX will assemble and launch their signature advanced rockets and spacecraft, with launches every month at the Boca Chica Beach site. When not being used for launches, SpaceX facilities will be used by student and faculty researchers at STARGATE for training, scientific research and technology development.

“This is more than a once-in-a-generation or once-in-a-lifetime moment; this is history in the making,” said UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, M.D. “The research partnerships we are establishing hold the promise to catapult the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley to the leading edge in the study of astrophysics. Our students and faculty will be assisting with space launches and exploration — that is a matchless experience that offers incredible possibilities for research.”

STARGATE evokes memories of how Humble Oil Co. and Rice University sold the land for the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston to NASA in 1962 for $30. Today, it's known as Johnson Space Center, and the Rice Space Institute has contributed decades of scientists and engineers to JSC.

Artists' concepts of the SpaceX commercial launch facility at Boca Chica. Images source: NASASpaceflight.com.

The bottom line is that Texas stepped up and outbid Florida.

It will happen again if state, county and local leaders don't get their act together — starting with an end to the entitlement attitude.

The Space Coast's elected federal representatives — Bill Nelson, Marco Rubio and Bill Posey — need to prioritize legislation that commercializes parts of KSC and CCAFS. Just as the FAA certifies joint-use military/civilian airports, the same must happen with the Cape. There will be opposition — not just from local fiefdoms, but also other states such as Texas who don't want Florida to get back into the game.

Florida's 8th District Democratic congressional candidate Gabriel Rothblatt proposes a commercial spaceport authority for the Cape. Video source: Gabriel Rothblatt YouTube channel.

Posey's opponent in the November election, Gabriel Rothblatt, has already proposed formation of a commercial spaceport authority at the Cape.

Rick Scott, or Charlie Crist if he wins in November, must take a firm leadership role at Space Florida and work with the state's federal representatives to make the commercial spaceport authority a reality. The governor should establish feeder programs with local educational institutions so that potential commercial tenants aren't left to interview only laid off United Space Alliance employees in their fifties with unrealistic compensation expectations after decades of generous federal wage standards enforced by union locals. I'm all for unions, but unions need to understand when they need to help employers remain competitive.

There's lots of empty land left around Boca Chica. If Florida doesn't learn to be competitive, plenty more NewSpace companies will bolt for deep in the heart of Texas.

UPDATE september 24, 2014The Valley Morning Star reports that SpaceX is already looking at transferring some launches from the Cape to Boca Chica.

SpaceX’s intent is to develop and activate the commercial launch site at Boca Chica in Cameron County expeditiously in order to meet an expectedly growing manifest.

Commercial launch missions to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) and beyond would be transferred to the new launch complex also.

“Our preference is to try to move — particularly the commercial GTO missions — to the Boca Chica launch site as soon as we can,” SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk said Monday.

Musk noted that “there is a significant benefit” in that the Boca Chica site is south of Cape Canaveral, Florida, “and that should help for GTO missions.”

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Break Out the Bubbly

SpaceX champagne glasses. Image courtesy Karen LaFon.

I wrote August 5 about SpaceX setting a modern-era record for the shortest turnaround of a pad for launches. The company launched two Falcon 9 rockets in just under 22 days.

This morning, SpaceX obliterated that record.

Fourteen days after launching commercial satellite AsiaSat 6 on September 7, SpaceX launched their robotic cargo craft Dragon this morning to the International Space Station.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 launches its Dragon to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Video source: NASA.

The record could have been thirteen days, but yesterday's attempt was rained out with about a half-hour left in the countdown.

You might have to go back to the Gemini 7 and Gemini 6A launches from Pad 19 in December 1965 to find a faster turnaround of a Cape pad. That was improvised, not planned. Gemini 6 was supposed to launch on October 25 to rendezvous with an Agena Target Vehicle, but the Agena was destroyed during launch earlier that day, so Gemini 6 had no mission. It was decided to postpone the mission until December, so it could practice a rendezvous with Gemini 7, which launched on December 4. Pad 19 required only minimal repairs, and the renamed Gemini 6A launched on December 15.

It should be noted that SpaceX uses a horizontal integration method for Falcon 9, as did Gemini for the Titan II, which might suggest why it was possible for both pads to be turned around so quickly. Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39, and the two United Launch Alliance pads that bookend the SpaceX Pad 40, use a vertical integration, which adds overhead and infrastructure that may require repair after launches.

A time-lapse photograph of the erection and launch of Gemini 10. Image source: Wikipedia.

The Russians have used horizontal integration at Baikonur going back to the R-7 ICBM in the late 1950s. Lacking a prosperous economy, Russia and its Soviet predecessor have always been forced to find the more efficient means to operate their space program.

Perhaps more important than the record is that the last two launches have been routine, with no significant anomalies.

In the post-launch media event, SpaceX Vice-President of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann said he thought it might be possible for SpaceX to reduce time between launches to as short as a week, assuming weather cooperates.

SpaceX now has six launches at Pad 40 in 2014. Koenigsmann said two more are planned for the year, including another Dragon flight and a commercial satellite launch. In November, SpaceX will use Pad 40 to demonstrate a Dragon V2 pad abort for the commercial crew program.

The revolutionary potential of NewSpace is here. I can't help but wonder what executives at Boeing, Lockheed Martin, ATK and Orbital Sciences are thinking about how they will possibly compete with SpaceX.

Click the arrow to watch the post-launch media briefing. Video source: NASA.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Retro Saturday: Atlas Project Film Report

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: Jeff Quitney YouTube channel.

This week's Retro Saturday looks at the first test flight of the Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile from Cape Canaveral on June 11, 1957 on Pad 14.

As you'll see in the 13½ minute film, it doesn't go well.

At the same time as the U.S. was developing its first ICBM, the Soviet Union was testing its R-7 Semyorka ICBM at Baikonur. Its first test in May 1957 failed, but the R-7 successfully flew for the first time during a test on August 21, 1957. The R-7 was used to launch Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957.

The successful R-7 launches led to political accusations that the United States trailed the Soviet Union in rocket technology. Those accusations resulted in Congressional hearings which eventually led to the creation of NASA in 1958.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

That's the Way It Will Be

Click the arrow to watch the segment. You may be subjected to an ad first. Video source: CBS This Morning.

CBS This Morning aired a segment today about the NASA Orion capsule, although it began with a bit about the commercial crew selection.

Click here to read the accompanying article.

The segment included a transition showing the “low-tech” similarities between Orion and Apollo landing in the water for retrieval. The clip included footage of Walter Cronkite, which alone makes it worth watching.

Something Borrowed, Something Blue

Click the arrow to watch the Boeing/Blue Origin event at the National Press Club. Video source: Blue Origin YouTube channel.

A year ago in September, Blue Origin filed a complaint to protest the lease award of Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

Many observers surmised that Blue Origin might have a tacit agreement with United Launch Alliance, a Boeing/Lockheed Martin partnership whose legal government launch monopoly is threatened by SpaceX. Blue Origin had no foreseeable need for Pad 39A in the near future, but denying SpaceX access to the pad would be throwing sand in their mutual competitor's metaphorical gear box.

Members of Congress who have received campaign contributions from Boeing or Lockheed Martin sent NASA letters protesting the SpaceX award.

Three months later, the Government Accountability Office rejected the complaint, and in April 2014 NASA and SpaceX formally signed at 20-year lease for Pad 39A.

If there was no quid pro quo between Blue Origin and ULA a year ago, their courtship became formal today.

At a media event in Washington, D.C. the companies announced a partnership to jointly produce a new engine that could eventually replace the Russian RD-180 engine currently used on the ULA Atlas V.

According to the ULA press release:

The ULA/Blue Origin agreement allows for a four-year development process with full-scale testing in 2016 and first flight in 2019. The BE-4 will be available for use by ULA and Blue Origin for both companies’ next generation launch systems.

The BE-4 is a liquid oxygen, liquefied natural gas (LNG) rocket engine that delivers 550,000-lbf of thrust at sea level. Two BE-4s will power each ULA booster, providing 1,100,000-lbf thrust at liftoff. ULA is investing in the engineering and development of the BE-4 to enable availability for national security, civil, human and commercial missions. Development of the BE-4 engine has been underway for three years and testing of BE-4 components is ongoing at Blue Origin’s test facilities in West Texas. Blue Origin recently commissioned a new large test facility for the BE-4 to support full engine testing.

Click here for the ULA BE-4 fact sheet.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos with a scale model of the BE-4 engine today at the National Press Club. Image source: NBCNews.com.

Both ULA CEO Tory Bruno and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos stressed that the BE-4 is not a “one for one” replacement for the RD-180, but global events this year have spurred the military and ULA to consider replacing the Russian engine.

After the Obama administration imposed economic sanctions on Russia earlier this year in response to events in Ukraine, Defense Minister Dmitri Rogozin threatened to end RD-180 shipments to ULA.

I've written several times that I viewed Rogozin's threats as hollow, because Energomash has no other market for the RD-180. That was confirmed yesterday by The Moscow Times:

Russia is not planning to halt shipments of its RD-180 and NK-33 rocket engines to U.S. aerospace firms in response to the latest round of Western sanctions, the deputy chairman of the government's Military-Industrial Commission said Tuesday.

“We do not have such plans. It is not profitable for us. We produce and deliver the [engines], they buy them,” Oleg Bochkarev said in comments carried by the TASS news agency ...

“Russia is rather peacefully responding to the sanctions,” Bochkarev said. “We have no plans to break relationships with anyone, they are trying to break relations with us.”

This formal partnership between an OldSpace company and a NewSpace company will be an interesting test to see if one culture is compatible with another.

ULA was created in 2006 to assure the government had a launch capability. It was not created to innovate; that was the purpose of the commercial cargo and crew program.

Blue Origin participated in earlier rounds of the commercial crew competition, and has continued with an unfunded Space Act agreement.

But ULA is not in the habit of developing new technology unless compensated by the federal government, so it will be interesting to see if the new partnership seeks a military contract backed by their Congressional benefactors to defray any investment costs.

It also appears to be an implicit admission that separately neither company can compete with SpaceX. The BE-4's LOX/LNG propellant appears to be an attempt to compete with the SpaceX Raptor engine under development that would use LOX and methane.

Today's event is further evidence that we are witnessing the birth of a “robust space industry” foreseen by the Aldridge Commission in June 2004 when it urged the Bush administration to inject competition through an awards program that would create innovation and bring down launch costs.

Something Old, Something New

Click the arrow to watch the Kennedy Space Center media event.

Click the arrow to listen to the commercial crew teleconference.

NASA announced yesterday that Boeing and SpaceX will provide the commercial vehicles that will transport astronauts to the International Space Station, hopefully by 2017.

Sierra Nevada Corporation, the third commercial crew participant in the prior round, will not be part of the certification process. Congress has pressed NASA to downselect as quickly as possible, even though the lack of competition would remove the incentive to innovate and charge an affordable price.

That could be reflected in the awards given the winners. Boeing will be eligible for $4.2 billion, while SpaceX can win $2.6 billion.

The significant disparity was a major focus of questions during yesterday's two media events, as well as social media debate.

Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathey Leuders repeatedly explained that the discrepancy was due to the vendors' responses to NASA's request for proposal. Both companies must meet the same milestones and achieve the same requirements, although the tests within each milestone may differ.

The implication is, frankly, that Boeing wants to charge more for the same service that SpaceX will provide.

What Sierra Nevada might have charged was not revealed, and may never be. Ms. Leuders declined to comment on why SNC and other proposals lost, other than they selected those that “provided the best value to the government.”

Neither vendor automatically gets the amount of the award. It must be earned, and it's possible neither company will ever earn that amount.

It's an important distinction, because it maintains a degree of competition in the final round.

Assuming both vendors complete their milestones and are certified by 2017 as planned, NASA has guaranteed each company a minimum of two and a maximum of six flights to the International Space Station. To quote from the press release:

The contracts include at least one crewed flight test per company with at least one NASA astronaut aboard to verify the fully integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the space station, as well as validate all its systems perform as expected. Once each company’s test program has been completed successfully and its system achieves NASA certification, each contractor will conduct at least two, and as many as six, crewed missions to the space station. These spacecraft also will serve as a lifeboat for astronauts aboard the station.

If SpaceX bid a lower price than Boeing, then theoretically SpaceX could get six flights while Boeing gets only two. These are fixed-price contracts, meaning neither vendor is guaranteed a profit nor can they come back and plead for more money.

A NASA promotional video for the Boeing CST-100. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

A NASA promotional video for the SpaceX Dragon V2. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

An additional contract could be issued once these terminate, and through a bidding process NASA could once again select the best offer.

The flights will be purchased through Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) contracts. Each flight will be a “task order,” formally known as in indefinite delivery contract. Task orders are used when the number and scheduling of services is undetermined.

During today's presentation at the Federal Aviation Administration's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., NASA's Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development Phil McAlister referred to a “five-year ordering period,” implying that up to twelve flights could occur from certification until five years later, e.g. 2017-2022. McAlister said the ordering process would occur “incrementally,” issuing task orders as they progress.

Implying that NASA might favor one vendor over another, McAlister said the agency would “leverage whatever vehicle is best for the program.” Note the use of the singular.

When asked if it was possible for SNC or other vendors to obtain crew contracts at a later date, McAlister said the FAR rules allow NASA to “bring in another provider if circumstances warrant.” He noted that “It's in NASA's interest to have a competitive environment.”

Click the arrow to watch the video of the FAA COMSTAC event with Phil McAlister.

Although NASA hopes that certification and operational flights begin in 2017, Administrator Charlie Bolden stressed that “Congress needs to support the President's request” for commercial crew funding, which hasn't happened since the Obama administration proposed funding the program in February 2010. A November 2013 audit by the NASA Office of the Inspector General found that the lack of Congressional support has already delayed the program by at least two years:

The Program received only 38 percent of its originally requested funding for FYs 2011 through 2013, bringing the current aggregate budget shortfall to $1.1 billion when comparing funding requested to funding received. As a result, NASA has delayed the first crewed mission to the ISS from FY 2015 to at least FY 2017. For FY 2013, Commercial Crew Program managers had already expected less than the requested $830 million and based their planning on a funding level of $525 million. The combination of a future flat-funding profile and lower-than-expected levels of funding over the past 3 years may delay the first crewed launch beyond 2017 and closer to 2020, the current expected end of the operational life of the ISS.

Bolden also said that "we need more destinations than the International Space Station." He didn't specifically name Bigelow Aerospace, but he did say "single modules" and "other laboratories" which would seem to describe the Bigelow habitats. A demonstration version called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module is scheduled to fly to the ISS in 2015 on the SpaceX cargo Dragon flight CRS-8.

Both Boeing and SpaceX have deals with Bigelow to deliver customers to the full-scale habitats which are planned to launch starting in 2017, roughly coinciding with the vendors' NASA certification date.

A Boeing Co. promotional video showing a computer animation of a CST-100 docking at the ISS. Video source: theworacle YouTube channel.

Bolden encouraged the media to ask the vendors about their commercial flights to other destinations. The certification process applies only to NASA flights; commercial flights to Bigelow are the regulatory purview of the Federal Aviation Administration.

As for Sierra Nevada, I wouldn't dismiss Dream Chaser just yet.

SNC has signed developmental agreements with the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. SNC has proposed various versions of Dream Chaser, including a strictly autonomous version that could serve an orbital microgravity laboratory and land by remote control.

NASA executives already have talked about a new round of ISS commercial cargo contracts, a potential market Boeing representatives recently speculated could be a use for CST-100 if Boeing didn't get a crew contract. Theoretically it's possible that SNC could seek an autonomous cargo delivery or orbital laboratory contract with NASA in the future. Dream Chaser will continue to receive NASA award payments for milestones achieved under earlier commercial crew round contracts once achieved, and could continue to collaborate with NASA using unfunded Space Act Agreements. Today's presentation by Phil McAlister left open the possibility that SNC could get a contract is SpaceX or Boeing falter.

Some members of Congress have criticized the SAAs; the NASA Inspector General issued a report in June 2014 which found problems with NASA's management of funded SAAs but did not question the unfunded agreements.

Unless Congress finally provides full funding for commercial crew as requested by the Obama administration since 2010, the future of this program will remain uncertain. If the November election gives control of both houses of Congress to the Republican party, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) could become chair of the appropriations subcommittee that controls NASA funding. He's generally been unfriendly to anything he interprets as a threat to the Space Launch System, which Shelby views as a major source of pork for his state. The House in recent years has consistently provided less funding for commercial crew than the Senate, so a Republican takeover might continue to underfund commercial crew.

I wrote in May 2014 that the commercial cargo and crew programs were proposed by the Bush administration specifically to encourage innovation and price reduction by encouraging risk. The idea has proven itself with commercial cargo.

Now we get to see if it works with commercial crew.

The significant price disparity between Boeing and SpaceX suggests the final battle between OldSpace and NewSpace may be which vendor gets six ISS flights. If SpaceX gets six while Boeing gets only two, it will be because SpaceX validated the original idea behind “Building a Robust Space Industry,” as it was called in 2004 by the Aldridge Commission.

Their report called for “the breaking down of barriers to commercial and entrepreneurial activities in space, as well as a cultural shift towards encouraging and incentivizing more private sector business in space. Such a change in both perspective and posture is essential if we are to develop a broad-based, societal change in space business.”

That vision for societal change was echoed time and again in yesterday's and today's media events. By the end of the decade, we'll know if it worked.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver on Bloomberg TV comments on the commercial crew awards. You may be subjected to an ad first.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk interviewed by CNN. You may be subjected to an ad first.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Retro Saturday: KSC Visitor Information Center

Click the arrow to watch the film on YouTube.

The series has been on hiatus for a while, but in 2012-2013 I wrote articles about the early history of Kennedy Space Center's visitor center. It's gone through several name changes over the years, from Tourist Information Center in 1964 to today's Visitor Complex.

This week's Retro Saturday film is an 8½ minute documentary produced in 1974 by the State of Florida Development Commission to promote what was then known as the Visitor Information Center. “The VIC” as it was known then had opened in August 1967. This isn't the original 1967 configuration but it's close.

This is the period when KSC was transitioning from the Apollo era to Shuttle. Skylab had just ended and Apollo-Soyuz was about to launch. A brief clip shows an Apollo-Soyuz mockup on display in the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Mining for Dollars

Click the arrow to watch the House Space Subcommittee hearing.

The House Space Subcommittee held a hearing on September 10 titled, “Exploring Our Solar System: The ASTEROIDS Act as a Key Step.”

As is typical for this committee, three Republican members — Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) — used the hearing to bash President Obama while promoting the Space Launch System.

Congress imposed the Space Launch System upon NASA in 2010 to replace the cancelled Constellation program. Congress did not tell NASA what was the rocket's purpose, other than to use existing Space Shuttle and Constellation contractors in the name of protecting jobs.

Critics dubbed SLS the Senate Launch System because it seemed to have no mission other than to help re-elect those members of Congress who represented NASA-related states and districts.

The Obama administration, forced to spend $3 billion a year on SLS and its Orion crew vehicle, proposed a program called the Asteroid Initiative.

Part of that initiative is the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which would use the SLS to send crew in the Orion capsule to rendezvous with a captured asteroid near lunar orbit. The administration claims this will help test and prove technologies that will one day lead to using SLS to send a crew to Mars in the 2030s.

Click the arrow to watch a NASA overview of the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Video source: NASA.gov Video YouTube channel.

Members on both sides of the partisan Congressional aisle have ridiculed ARM, as have many in the scientific community. Some members have dismissed ARM as “lackluster” and uninspiring; they want to do Apollo again to the Moon, or do Apollo-on-Steroids to Mars.

On March 2, 2014, the committee held a hearing to discuss Rep. Smith's proposal to send two astronauts on a Mars-Venus flyby. He never bothered to say how he would pay for it, or how the crew would feed itself, or how they would survive the lethal doses of radiation.

During a June 25, 2014 hearing, the committee was told by a panel of experts that a Mars mission would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. No member of the committee volunteered to support spending that much money.

The one attraction of ARM is that it won't cost anywhere close to human spaceflight to the surface of the Moon or to Mars. Congress may not like it, but it's affordable.

Wednesday's hearing was about a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) that would establish legislation regulating commercial asteroid mining. H.R. 5063, the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities In Deep Space Act, is “To promote the development of a commercial asteroid resources industry for outer space in the United States and to increase the exploration and utilization of asteroid resources in outer space.”

Click here for the complete text of the bill.

With the current session of Congress about to end with 2014, and a Congressional election in November, it's unlikely the bill will go anywhere — in this session.

But what the hearing did reveal is that, with some members on both sides of the partisan aisle, there seemed to be support for the idea of promoting commercial asteroid mining.

Committee member Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), one of the few SLS critics on the panel, has long been a proponent of commercial space, including asteroid mining.

So is Tom Jones, a four-time Space Shuttle astronaut who is perhaps the most vocal advocate among the retired astronaut corps for asteroid research and exploitation. Jones supported ARM in an April 2013 FoxNews.com editorial:

In the ten-year, $2.6-billion venture, private firms will work with NASA to demonstrate how to extract water, construction material, and even strategic metals from the millions of asteroids that lurk near Earth’s orbit. Access to water, rocket fuel, chemicals, and metals from the asteroids and the Moon would lower dramatically the cost of exploring space, and launch profitable ventures from mining to manufacturing.

Astronaut Tom Jones comments on asteroid mining. Video source: IRDScience Community.

In an April 2012 article published by Aerospace America titled “Snaring a Pierce of the Sky,” Jones detailed a Keck Institute for Space Studies proposal that was the inspiration for the NASA ARM proposal.

Some believe that the right asteroid might contain more platinum group metals than currently exist on the Earth's surface. Others such as the author of “Fool's Platinum?” posted January 24, 2013 by The Economist believe that “the economic case for asteroid mining also remains far from obvious. A doubling of supply from space might, for instance, exert such downward pressure on the price of platinum on Earth as to undermine the whole business case for the venture.”

(My response would be, don't bring it back all at once. Return as much or as little as the market demands.)

The Economist argues that none of this technology has been tested, much less proven.

That's where the Asteroid Initiative can make a difference.

The argument has been made that human beings aren't necessary to capture and harvest asteroids. That remains to be seen.

Let's set aside for a moment the notion that SLS and Orion have to be used in an ARM-type mission, and step back to the basics of developing an American commercial asteroid mining industry.

Two asteroid mining companies already have been founded, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries.

Watch a Planetary Resources video on asteroid mining for rocket fuels. Video sources: Planetary Resources YouTube channel.

Watch a Deep Space Industries video on harvesting and processing asteroids. Video source: Deep Space Industries YouTube channel.

So the interest is there. What should be the federal government's role?

Let's go back to the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. One purpose for NASA authorized by Congress is “The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere.”

Supporting a domestic commercial asteroid mining industry is clearly within NASA's purview.

So the next question is, should NASA lead or be a partner?

Fifty years of history have shown us that when the government has a space monopoly, it's hideously expensive, fraught with delays and vulnerable to Congressional underfunding. That led to Constellation's demise and now threatens Space Launch System.

In 2004, the Bush administration proposed a commercial cargo and crew program as part of its Vision for Space Exploration. The idea was to create “a robust space industry” by using competition and incentives to grow a domestic commercial space economy.

Ten years later, commercial cargo is fully operational, and commercial crew is about to enter its final round.

SpaceX, one of the commercial cargo operators and a commercial crew finalist, uses its Falcon 9 rocket to launch commercial satellites from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at about one-third the cost of domestic competitors. SpaceX has launched five commercial satellites from CCAFS since December 2013; the last time its competitors launched a commercial satellite from the Cape was 2009.

The “NewSpace” model of incentive through competition and partnership with NASA is a big success.

It should be applied to asteroid mining.

Most of the technologies are already available, or in the pipeline.

An artist's concept of the Deep Space Industries Dragonfly. Image source: Deep Space Industries.

The first step is to find candidate asteroids. NASA and both companies are already doing that, with existing observatories or with small CubeSat probes.

Once an asteroid is identified, what to do with it?

That's where NASA and federal deep pockets are needed.

Asteroids travel at tens of thousands of miles an hour. Most of them tumble. They have virtually no gravity.

To capture or redirect one will be the major technological challenge of our 21st Century space technology.

Certain members of Congress may find that “lackluster” but I think it's the key to commercialization of the solar system.

Some scenarios suggest simply removing a sample, while others would redirect the entire asteroid.

And where to return it? The ARM mission proposes a lunar orbit, giving SLS astronauts a deep-space mission to build confidence in Orion technology as a stepping stone to Mars.

Aside from that argument, to me it would make more sense to bring it closer to Earth, where it's more easily accessible.

Another argument in favor of an Earth orbit is communications. Signals travel at the speed of light. A signal to Mars, for example, could take four to twenty-four minutes. If you're trying to remotely operate a robotic craft from Earth, the time lag increases the risk of mission failure.

So the other options are to bring the rock closer to Earth, or ... send the people closer to the rock.

That's what ARM does.

An artist's concept of an Orion astronaut retrieving a sample from a captured asteroid. Image source: NASA.

Here's where we come back to the question of the launch and crew vehicles.

If SLS and Orion did not exist, how would the U.S. as a spacefaring nation go about doing this?

Several human spaceflight launch systems will be available within two to three years — the commercial crew vehicle competitors. The SpaceX Dragon V2 would launch on a Falcon 9, while the Boeing CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser would launch on the Lockheed Martin Atlas V.

For deep space missions, SpaceX hopes to bring online the Falcon Heavy in 2015. “Heavy” versions of the Atlas V and Boeing Delta IV could also be used.

NASA could conduct a competition similar to commercial crew for these missions, perfecting the technology until private mining companies are ready to send their own crews.

We also need a mining camp.

That's where Bigelow Aerospace comes in.

Bigelow is developing expandable habitats that will be much safer and cheaper than current aluminum and steel space station modules.

An artist's concept of the Bigelow Space Station Alpha being serviced by a Boeing CST-100. Image source: Bigelow Aerospace.

A demonstration version of the Bigelow habitat will be tested at the International Space Station for two years starting in 2015.

Bigelow already has transportation deals with Boeing and SpaceX to deliver customers to their full-scale station, once operational later in the decade.

NASA could acquire a Bigelow habitat for deployment in cislunar space, the foundation for the asteroid mining camp. The robotic craft that capture an asteroid could deliver the rock to that location, or if humans need to do the capture then they could do the delivery.

In any case, rather than spacewalks the astronauts could operate robots from within the Bigelow habitat to harvest an asteroid, eliminating the time lag problem.

Once the materials are harvested, they could be deployed in space depots, or returned to Earth. The space depots might be preferable for rocket fuel and water, but for platinum and other precious metals they'll need to be delivered to Earth.

The cargo version of the SpaceX Dragon can return 3,000 kilograms or 6,600 pounds of payload from the ISS. From further out in the solar system, that's another calculation, but the bottom line is that the technology exists.

The Asteroid Initiative might be the 21st Century version of the Louisiana Purchase. The ARM crew might be the modern equivalent of Lewis and Clark.

The analogy is inexact, because under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty the Moon and other celestial bodies are “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

The treaty is silent on commercial exploitation of space, probably because that wasn't possible in the late 1960s. Article VI states:

States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.

So it could be argued that the ASTEROIDS Act helps define the U.S. government's responsibilities under Article VI.

The $3 billion a year being wasted on Space Launch System does nothing to advance U.S. space technology. SLS was created to perpetuate an obsolete government launch industry.

But invest that $3 billion in growing a NewSpace asteroid mining industry, and it unleashes entirely new technologies that would give the United States economic dominance of the solar system for the foreseeable future.

When humans go back to the Moon, or for the first time to Mars, it shouldn't be for pride or prestige or inspiration or other vaguely defined terms that politicians use. Marco Polo, Columbus, Magellan, Lewis and Clark set out on their expeditions for commercial reasons. When it makes economic sense to plunge people through the gravity wells of other worlds, then it will happen. Robots such as the Mars Curiosity rover, meanwhile, are doing the exploration job just fine.

It will be almost impossible to convince porking members of Congress to give up their prize sow. But if the Obama administration were to endorse the ASTEROIDS Act while calling on Congress to unleash the 21st Century Gold Rush, then perhaps more support can be found on the Hill for the Asteroid Initiative.

UPDATE September 13, 2014 — The Japan Times has published a commentary on the subject: “Asteroid-Mining Race Starts With Few Laws in Place”

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Orion Checks Out

The recently completed Orion crew module in Kennedy Space Center's Operations & Checkout Building. Image source: NASA.

More than ten years after President George W. Bush announced his proposal for a Crew Exploration Vehicle, NASA's Orion crew capsule is finally assembled.

In his January 14, 2004 Vision for Space Exploration speech, Bush proposed:

Our second goal is to develop and test a new spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, by 2008, and to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014. The Crew Exploration Vehicle will be capable of ferrying astronauts and scientists to the Space Station after the shuttle is retired. But the main purpose of this spacecraft will be to carry astronauts beyond our orbit to other worlds. This will be the first spacecraft of its kind since the Apollo Command Module.

Orion has had a long and tortured history.

An early Lockheed Martin concept for the Crew Exploration Vehicle. Image source: Wikipedia.

As part of the Constellation program, the Orion contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin in August 2006. According to the NASA press release:

Orion will be capable of transporting four crewmembers for lunar missions and later supporting crew transfers for Mars missions. Orion could also carry up to six crew members to and from the International Space Station.

The first Orion launch with humans onboard is planned for no later than 2014, and for a human moon landing no later than 2020.

The four-year gap between the demise of Shuttle and its successor had been planned since Bush's speech. It was part of the January 28, 2004 presentation to the Senate Science Committee by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe.

The August 2006 press release further documents that the current “gap” relying on Russia for International Space Station access was part of the Bush administration plan from the beginning.

A September 2006 artist's concept of the Ares I/Orion infrastructure. Image source: NASA.

Orion was intended to fly crew rotations to ISS atop Constellation's Ares I. Both systems faced challenges and delays, as documented in this April 2008 Government Accountability Office audit.

Currently, nearly every major segment of Ares I and Orion faces knowledge gaps in the development of required hardware and technology and many are being affected by uncertainty in requirements. For example, computer modeling is showing that thrust oscillation within the first stage of the Ares I could cause excessive vibration throughout the Ares I and Orion. Resolving this issue could require redesigns to both the Ares I and Orion vehicles that could ultimately impact cost, schedule, and performance. Furthermore, the addition of a fifth segment to the Ares I first stage has the potential to impact qualification efforts for the first stage and could result in costly requalification and redesign efforts. Additionally, the J-2X engine represents a new engine development effort that, both NASA and Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne recognize, is likely to experience failures during development. Addressing these failures is likely to lead to design changes that could impact the project's cost and schedule. With regard to the Orion project, there is currently no industry capability for producing a thermal protection system of the size required by the Orion. NASA has yet to develop a solution for this gap, and given the size of the vehicle and the tight development schedule, a feasible thermal protection system may not be available for initial operational capability to the space station.

Sixteen months later, the GAO issued another audit which concluded that Constellation “lacked a sound business case.”

NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case — including firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time — needed to justify moving the Constellation program forward into the implementation phase. Gaps in the business case include

  • significant technical and design challenges for the Orion and Ares I vehicles, such as limiting vibration during launch, eliminating the risk of hitting the launch tower during lift off, and reducing the mass of the Orion vehicle, represent considerable hurdles that must be overcome in order to meet safety and performance requirements; and
  • a poorly phased funding plan that runs the risk of funding shortfalls in fiscal years 2009 through 2012, resulting in planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. This approach has limited NASA’s ability to mitigate technical risks early in development and precludes the orderly ramp up of workforce and developmental activities.

In response to these gaps, NASA delayed the date of its first crewed-flight and changed its acquisition strategy for the Orion project. NASA acknowledges that funding shortfalls reduce the agency’s flexibility in resolving technical challenges. The program’s risk management system warned of planned work not being completed to support schedules and milestones. Consequently, NASA is now focused on providing the capability to service the International Space Station and has deferred the capabilities needed for flights to the moon. Though these changes to the overarching requirements are likely to increase the confidence level associated with a March 2015 first crewed flight, these actions do not guarantee that the program will successfully meet that deadline. Nevertheless, NASA estimates that Ares I and Orion represent up to $49 billion of the over $97 billion estimated to be spent on the Constellation program through 2020. While the agency has already obligated more than $10 billion in contracts, at this point NASA does not know how much Ares I and Orion will ultimately cost, and will not know until technical and design challenges have been addressed.

At the same time that the GAO was conducting this audit, an independent committee appointed by newly elected President Barack Obama was reviewing the status of the U.S. human spaceflight program. Its report, titled Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation, concluded that Ares I and Orion would not fly until at least 2017:

Given the funding upon which it was based, the Constellation Program chose a reasonable architecture for human exploration. However, even when it was announced, its budget depended on funds becoming available from the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010 and the decommissioning of ISS in early 2016. Since then, as a result of technical and budgetary issues, the development schedules of Ares I and Orion have slipped, and work on Ares V and Altair has been delayed ...

The original 2005 schedule showed Ares I and Orion available to support the ISS in 2012, two years after scheduled Shuttle retirement. The current schedule now shows that date as 2015. An independent assessment of the technical, budgetary and schedule risk to the Constellation Program performed for the Committee indicates that an additional delay of at least two years is likely. This means that Ares I and Orion will not reach the ISS before the Station’s currently planned termination, and the length of the gap in U.S. ability to launch astronauts into space will be at least seven years.

The U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee meets June 2009 in Washington, D.C. Image source: The Space Review.

In February 2010, the Obama administration proposed cancelling Constellation but using Orion as an ISS lifeboat. After months of outrage on Capitol Hill, Congress finally agreed to cancel Constellation but replaced it with another program called the Space Launch System. SLS has no missions or destinations; its purpose is to protect Shuttle and Constellation jobs and the contractors who employed them. Critics dubbed SLS the Senate Launch System. Orion would now be the crew vehicle atop SLS — although the 2010 NASA Authorization Act written and passed by Congress was silent on where Orion's crew members would actually go.

An April 2013 GAO report titled NASA: Assessment of Selected Large-Scale Projects reviewed the status of the SLS version of Orion:

The project has experienced delays in building and delivering hardware for its first exploration flight test (EFT-1) which could threaten the launch currently scheduled for September 2014. EFT-1 will test numerous separation events, the thermal protection system, and the parachutes, all of which protect the crew during flight, reentry, and landing events. Development challenges coupled with an aggressive schedule have led the project to miss more internal milestones than anticipated for this test event. The project is currently working to develop a mitigation plan in order to meet their planned September 2014 test date ...

The current projected mass of the spacecraft for the first crewed flight test exceeds the recommended mass by over 5,000 pounds. Project officials have deferred mass reduction activities for the first non- crewed flight to the first crewed flight. The project plans to use EFT-1 component testing and flight test results, among other analyses, in order to further refine the spacecraft’s design to meet mass requirements.

Project officials are tracking a risk that the thermal protection system could crack due to the thermal expansion stress loads of the heatshield prior to reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, which could threaten the safety of the crew and success of the mission. This cracking property was known prior to selection of the heatshield material, but project officials have been conducting stress analyses on the heatshield, among other studies, to understand the magnitude of the cracking. These analyses have delayed production of the heatshield for EFT-1.The heatshield was deemed mature during its critical design in May 2012, and project officials expect its capability to be fully demonstrated in EFT-1.

May 30, 2014 ... Lockheed Martin technicians and engineers attach the heat shield to the Orion crew module for Exploration Flight Test-1. Image source: NASA.

More than ten years after Bush's speech, more than eight years after the Orion contract was issued, and more than three years after Congress saved it from the grave — Orion is ready to roll out.

An August 29, 2014 NASA press release solicited requests for media credentials to cover Orion's departure from the Operations & Checkout Building. It will move to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility, where Orion “will be fueled with ammonia and hyper-propellants for its mission. It will later be moved again for the installation of its launch abort system.”

NASA is targeting December 4 to launch the capsule atop a Boeing Delta IV from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Exploration Flight Test 1 will have Orion complete two orbits around Earth at an altitude of 3,600 miles, then re-enter the atmosphere to test the heat shield.

The capsule can only be used once. Lockheed Martin will have to build another one for the next flight.

When will that be? Not for about four years.

NASA announced on August 27 that the Space Launch System is already delayed a year; in bureaucratic parlance, they are now 70% confident the SLS will be ready by November 2018.

That 70% confidence applies only to the rocket, not to the next Orion capsule or the service module being built by the European Space Agency.

How much money has been spent on Orion and its earlier incarnations is anyone's guess. The same could be said of its future.

From those who fantasize of doing Apollo again, we're bound to hear the drumbeat of American exceptionalism. One wonders just how “exceptional” a nation is that spends billions of dollars over eight years to complete one capsule for a two-orbit uncrewed test flight.

Below the Belt

An artist's concept of the Masten Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) for DARPA. Image source: Masten Space Systems.

While NewSpace observers await NASA's announcement of which companies will receive the agency's Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) awards, a lesser known commercial partnership program has made its own awards.

From the September 8 NASA press release:

NASA has selected four companies to integrate and fly technology payloads on commercial suborbital reusable platforms that carry payloads near the boundary of space. The selection is part of NASA's continuing effort to foster a viable market for American commercial reusable suborbital platforms that allow testing of new space technologies within Earth's atmosphere.

Through these new awards, selected companies will receive an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract for integration and flight services, drawing from a pool of commercial space companies. The three-year contracts have two-year extension options and a minimum value of $100,000. The flights will carry a variety of payloads during five diverse flight profiles to help meet the agency's research and technology needs.

These new contracts are the logical extension of previous contracts awarded in 2011, using commercial capabilities with proven flight systems. This new procurement allows for the addition of new vendors and new flight profiles on an annual basis, based on NASA's requirements.

“We've made tremendous progress in working toward the goal of regular, frequent and predictable access to near-space at a reasonable cost with easy recovery of intact payloads,” said Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for Space Technology at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “These proven flight service providers will allow for payloads from organizations including NASA, industry, academia, and other government agencies to be tested on flights to the edge of space before being committed to demonstration in the harsh environment of space itself.”

The selected companies are:

NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate is charged with maturing cross-cutting technologies to flight readiness status for future space missions. Through these contracts, NASA will provide frequent flight opportunities for technology payloads on suborbital platforms.

The Flight Opportunities Program is managed at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California and is part of the agency's Space Technology Mission Directorate.

Mission Impossible

SpaceX launches AsiaSat 6 at 1:00 AM EDT on September 7, 2014. Image source: SpaceX.

“It always seems impossible until it's done.”

— Nelson Mandela

On August 5, I wrote about SpaceX setting a modern record for shortest turnaround time between launches at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

SpaceX had just launched AsiaSat 8 a little under 22 days after launching Orbcomm OG2.

The September 7 launch of AsiaSat 6 occurred 33 days after the AsiaSat 8 launch. AsiaSat 6 was supposed to launch on August 27, but was delayed eleven days after a developmental rocket test failed at the SpaceX site in McGregor, Texas. Although there was no suspicion that the incident had anything to do with the Falcon 9 version on the Cape's Pad 40, SpaceX founder Elon Musk ordered a delay anyway just to “triple-check.”

The tentative launch date for Commercial Resupply Services flight 4 (CRS-4) to the International Space Station had been tentatively scheduled for September 19. With the AsiaSat 6 launch delayed eleven days, I suspected the CRS-4 mission would be delayed too.

But never assume SpaceX will pass up a challenge.

Florida Today reporter James Dean posted this afternoon that SpaceX still intends to try to launch CRS-4 on September 19.

The urgency is due a Russian Soyuz launch scheduled for September 25 to deliver the next crew rotation to the ISS.

If SpaceX pulls it off, it will have been twelve days between launches.

One might have to go back to the 1960s to find a faster turnaround.

During the Gemini program, NASA launched Gemini 6 eleven days after Gemini 7, a rendezvous practice mission improvised after the Gemini 6 Agena Target Vehicle exploded after launch.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Back to Business

Click the arrow to watch the AsiaSat 6 launch footage. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

SpaceX woke up the residents of north Brevard County at 1 AM this morning, launching the Falcon 9 to deliver AsiaSat 6 to geosynchronous orbit.

This is the fifth commercial satellite launch by SpaceX from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since December 2013. Before the SES-8 launch in December 2013, no commercial satellites had launched from the Cape since 2009. The federal government granted Boeing and Lockheed Martin a legal monopoly in 2006 to create United Launch Alliance. Since then, commercial satellite companies fled overseas where the launch costs were cheaper.

SpaceX is bringing them back.

According to its web site, AsiaSat has two primary shareholders, CITIC Limited and General Electric. According to the CITIC web site, it's “the biggest conglomerate in China with leading businesses in sectors well matched with China’s economic growth and development.” The company is listed in Hong Kong, but according to a filing with the Federal Reserve “CITIC Group is wholly owned by the Chinese government and is supervised by the Ministry of Finance of PRC and audited by the National Audit Office of PRC.”

Instead of launching on one of their own Long March expendable rockets, AsiaSat chose to go with SpaceX.

The above animated GIF posted on NASASpaceflight.com suggests a minor anomaly may have occurred with the second stage engine bell. A hose in the lower left of the right-side image seems to separate around the time the call was made to begin the engine chill. But both SpaceX and AsiaSat have stated the satellite successfully achieved its orbit.

A similar upper-stage anomaly on a ULA launch might go unreported, because often military payload launches go dark shortly after launch. The military doesn't want classified payloads to be seen once the fairing separates.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Retro Saturday: The Monsanto House of the Future

Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: GM2ltd YouTube channel.


If you want to believe this week's Retro Saturday film, our homes should be almost all plastic by now.

Even the spouses and children, judging by the acting performances.

The Monsanto House of the Future is a 1957 promotional documentary by the Plastics Division of the Monsanto Chemical Company. The House of the Future was an original attraction in Disneyland's Tomorrowland from 1957 through 1967.

I grew up in Southern California. The original Disneyland in Anaheim was a childhood ritual for anyone growing up in that era, back when rides had tickets lettered A through E (hence the phrase, “E-ticket ride”).

A Disneyland E-ticket circa the mid-1970s. Image source: Wikipedia.

As documented by the web site Yesterland.com, the House of the Future was one of two free attractions in Tomorrowland sponsored by Monsanto, along with the Hall of Chemistry. Such a blatant commercial promotion today might be scoffed at or ridiculed as an “infomercial,” but Walt Disney defrayed his costs by recruiting American corporations to create promotional exhibits in his amusement park.

I was too young to grasp the concept of an informercial. I just thought the House of the Future was very cool.

But the plastics fad never caught on.

An undated House of the Future publicity photo. Image source: The Walt Disney Company via Yesterland.com

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Gone with the Wind

The Vehicle Assembly Building after Hurricane Frances. Image source: Kennedy Space Center photo archives.

Ten years ago today, Frances bore down on the Space Coast as a Category 2 hurricane.

When it left the next day, the storm had dealt the most significant damage to Kennedy Space Center in its history.

Two days earlier, Frances had been a Category 4, posing a worst-case scenario for the space center. Most KSC facilities were designed to withstand a Category 3.

September 4, 2004 ... Hurricane Frances approaches the Florida coastline. Image source: NASA GES DISC.

On September 2, NASA issued a press release detailing KSC preparations for the hurricane.

As of today, KSC is closed, and its nearly 14,000 workers have been sent home to make preparations with their families. The center is tentatively scheduled to reopen Tuesday.

KSC workers spent the past several days taking steps to protect the Space Shuttle fleet, spacecraft hardware, and facilities against damage. Most major KSC systems have been powered down, sandbags have been laid around building doors and heavy equipment moved into the massive Vehicle Assembly Building. Hardware has been covered with plastic or tarps and smaller pieces of equipment have been raised off the ground.

All three Space Shuttles have been secured in their Orbiter Processing Facilities. Shuttles' systems are powered down, their landing gear stowed and payload bay doors closed. Spaceflight hardware has been lifted off floors and protected. International Space Station (ISS) components, housed at KSC while they are prepared for flight, have been secured.

In the orbiter's hangar, Atlantis' wheels are raised to prepare for Frances. Image source: NASA.gov press release.

Outer bands passed over KSC on September 4, but the brunt of the storm came through the space center on September 5.

Frances makes landfall on September 5. Image source: The Weather Channel.

According to the KSC Photo Archive, “The maximum wind at the surface from Hurricane Frances was 94 mph from the northeast at 6:40 a.m. on Sunday, September 5. It was recorded at a weather tower located on the east shore of the Mosquito Lagoon near the Cape Canaveral National Seashore. The highest sustained wind at KSC was 68 mph.”

The next day, on September 6 NASA issued a press release with an initial damage assessment:

The most serious damage reported so far is to the center's landmark structure, the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), and to the facility that manufactures Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System tiles and blankets.

Sustained wind of more than 70 mph was recorded during the storm. Approximately 1,000 panels were blown off the VAB. In some places, exterior panels and underlying sub-panels are missing, leaving the interior of the building exposed to the elements. There are several holes, including one estimated to be 50 feet by 50 feet, in the building. Emergency operations personnel have not entered the VAB, as several loose panels are still hanging from the building and present a safety hazard.

The KSC Space Shuttle tile and blanket facility's roof is partially torn off, and there is significant wall damage. Damage to the facility and its effect on the Space Shuttle Return to Flight effort is not yet known. The building housing International Space Station hardware and modules appears to be in good shape. KSC was powered down last week as Frances approached. Emergency operations teams are working to restore electricity and phone service to the center.

NASA raw footage of Kennedy Space Center hurricane damage. Video source: NASA.

Another update was issued on September 7:

Numerous buildings and center infrastructure sustained wind and rain damage. KSC will remain closed to most personnel until Monday, while damage assessments and repairs continue. Video b-roll of KSC hurricane damage is airing on the NASA TV Video File. NASA will release additional footage as available.

Approximately 1,000 operations people are working at KSC today, up from about 200 yesterday. Power and phone service was restored to most of the center. Preliminary assessments of the center's two launch pads indicate they're in good shape. The SWIFT spacecraft, which is scheduled for launch early next month, also appears fine, but the building where it rode out the storm did sustain damage. Also, power was restored today to the third and final Orbital Processing Facility, which houses the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Assessment of KSC's landmark facility, the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), shows about 820 panels were torn off during the storm. Initial review of the VAB's interior indicates no serious damage to equipment, including two Space Shuttle External Tanks. Engineers are continuing their damage assessment. The Thermal Protection System Facility, where Space Shuttle tile and blankets are manufactured, suffered significant damage. Work is under way to recover critical spaceflight material, such as tile molds, from exposed areas.

The second floor of the Thermal Protection System Facility was heavily damaged by the hurricane. Image source: KSC photo archives.

VAB aluminum panels are recovered during the Frances cleanup. Image source: KSC photo archives.

VAB roof damage caused by Frances. Image source: KSC photo archives.

On September 8, center director Jim Kennedy issued this statement:

Greetings, my friends! As we head into day three after the wrath of Hurricane Frances, I wanted to take a moment to address some of the actions the Center has taken in the best interest of KSC and its employees. I will also give you a preliminary picture of how KSC fared after the storm.

First, and foremost, I have received no reports of any of our work force being injured from the storm. If you saw my note last week, this was by far my number one priority. We were all truly blessed. I'm not naive and totally understand hundreds and even thousands of you have home and property damage and many still don't have power. My thoughts are with you during this hectic time.

As I'm sure you heard, and in concert with our major contractors, I made the decision not to bring the total work force back to KSC until Monday, Sept. 13. The major reasons for this decision are as follows: Brevard County has requested that as many people as possible to stay off the roads as the county recovers. There are gas, food and ice shortages the county is managing. At the same time, we have many damaged facilities and we want to make sure we have safe and working facilities for everyone to return to. I also realize many of you are struggling to clean up and maintain your home front. Brevard County Schools are closed until Monday so many people need to take care of their children. Finally, by this weekend, our weather experts will have a good feel for what Hurricane Ivan is going to do. A combination of all these reasons led to the decision. Thanks for your patience and understanding; I know many people are chomping at the bit to check out their offices and facilities for themselves.

A Mercury-Redstone at the KSC Gate 3 entrance was knocked over by Frances. Image source: KSC photo archives.

Frances fatally damaged the iconic press site review stand. Image source: KSC photo archives.

Beach erosion near the launch pads caused by the hurricane. Image source: KSC photo archives.

Nine days later on September 16, NASA issued a press release announcing that “14,000 people returned to work at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) this week, following an 11-day closure due to Hurricane Frances.” The release listed these recovery efforts:

Vehicle Assembly Building:

  • Netting was placed above flight hardware to ensure no additional debris would fall and cause damage
  • Roof was inspected and is safe for contractors to begin repairs
  • High-crew rigging was moved to the south side for workers to begin inspection, panel replacement and repair

Thermal Protection System Facility:

  • Workers are installing a temporary roof
  • Clean-up and water removal activities are well under way
  • Grid is complete at the hangar, so workers can begin to process TPS blankets
  • The equipment from the second floor, as well as the raw materials needed to manufacture the blankets, was moved to the hangar

Processing Control Center:

  • Temporary roof installed
  • Clean-up and water removal activities are well under way
  • Wet tiles removed from the facility, so work stations and offices can be cleaned

Frances wasn't the only hurricane to harass the Space Coast that year.

Hurricane Charley made landfall in southwest Florida the afternoon of August 13, making its way up the I-4 corridor to exit near Daytona Beach north of KSC early the next morning. According to an NBC News report, “Charley tore off about 40 of the 4-foot-by-16-foot exterior panels from the assembly building.”

Hurricane Frances passed through September 4-5.

Just as KSC was picking up the pieces from Frances, Hurricane Ivan passed south of the Florida Keys on September 10 but ten days later looped back over the Atlantic to pass east of Cape Canaveral on a southward journey that eventually took it over the Gulf of Mexico again.

Hurricane Jeanne was the fourth hurricane to strike Florida, making landfall as a Category 3 storm late on the night of September 25 just two miles from where Frances had struck three weeks earlier.

This composite image tracks Hurricane Jeanne to Florida landfall, and shows the tracks of earlier 2004 hurricanes. Image source: NASA Earth Observatory.

Spaceflight Now reported on September 27:

At the Kennedy Space Center, sustained winds of 54 mph were recorded at ground level with gusts to 64 mph. At the 492-foot level, sustained winds from Jeanne and Frances were 68 mph. But Frances produced gusts up to 102 mph while Jeanne's gusts measured 93 mph.

Frances generated winds greater than 50 mph for more than 36 hours compared to 21 hours for Jeanne. Rainfall from Frances measured 8 inches while Jeanne produced just 3 inches.

NASA Direct reports on KSC damage assessment and recovery starting on September 27. Video source: NASA.

A NASA helicopter takes off to perform inspections of Hurricane Jeanne damage. Image source: KSC photo archives.

Roof damage to the Apollo Saturn V Center caused by Hurricane Jeanne. Image source: KSC photo archives.

Historic Hangar S at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station also suffered roof damage. Image source: KSC photo archives.

2004 was the most active hurricane season in Kennedy Space Center history. In the ten years since then, for the most part KSC has been in a hurricane lull, with the last event Tropical Storm Fay in August 2008. The space center closed for the event, which lasted three days as Fay stalled over the Space Coast. KSC damage was minimal other than some flooding.

The 2014 hurricane season has been quiet so far for Florida, but we're only now in the peak time statistically, so locals need only revisit what happened ten years ago to be reminded not to take this lull for granted.

Space Coast rainfall from Tropical Storm Fay. Image source: National Weather Service.