Multiple media outlets are reporting that an investigation led by retired U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Larry D. Welch has concluded that the service went beyond its appropriate role by trying to impose its own standards on SpaceX, which hopes to be certified for launching military payloads.
The U.S. Air Force overstepped its bounds as it worked to certify privately held SpaceX to launch military satellites, undermining the benefit of working with a commercial provider, an independent review showed on Thursday.
The report cited a “stark disconnect” between the Air Force and SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies, about the purpose of the certification process and recommended changes ...
The report, prepared by former Air Force Chief of Staff General Larry Welch, said the Air Force treated the process like a detailed design review, dictating changes in SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and even the company's organizational structure.
That approach resulted in over 400 issues that needed to be resolved, which was “counterproductive” to a national policy aimed at encouraging competition in the sector.
In fact, the process was intended to show that SpaceX met overall requirements to launch military satellites, not carry out the more detailed review required for each launch on a case-by-case basis, he said.
A March 26 Bloomberg Business report said that the investigation was delivered to Congress on March 25 and was to be released to the public on March 26, however I've been unable to locate it online.
The Welch report also faulted SpaceX for failing to respect the Air Force's experience.
According to the Bloomberg report:
Describing the past conflicts, Welch said the company’s view “is that the Air Force should have confidence in SpaceX capabilities based on its track record of performance,” while the Air Force “has approached certification as a detailed design review.”
“Neither view was the intent of the original certification plan,” which envisioned a “partnership that leveraged the commercial practices and experience of SpaceX and decades of Air Force experience,” Welch said. “Both teams need to adjust.”
Aviation Week reported on March 25 that Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who ordered the review, said in an interview that “The U.S. Air Force and SpaceX are modifying the Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRDA) signed two years ago to outline” the process necessary to complete certification.
The changes are needed to refocus the certification process on establishing top-level trust and confidence that the company can deliver a launch as planned. The current CRDA was “probably too focused on the government side on conducting detailed design reviews and instructing design changes … rather than focusing on the high-level question of do we trust this new entrant,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told Aviation Week during a March 25 interview.
SpaceX chose its path to certification and the CRDA was signed by both parties in June 2013. “Even though the certification process is governed by a CRDA — it is all written down — and you would think that would help people mutually understand what is expected, that, in fact, was not always the case,” James said. SpaceX’s culture of innovation and the Air Force’s culture — focused on “history and a lot of experience” — clashed.
The 80-year old General Welch retired in 1990 but has continued to serve on various panels, including a 2007 task force that reviewed Defense Department policies for handling nuclear weapons.
Click the arrow to watch the 1993 promotional film. Video source: Rick Tumlinson YouTube channel.
This week's Retro Saturday is about a reusable rocket with landing legs.
No, it's not the SpaceX Falcon 9R, but a distant ancestor, the McDonnell Douglas DC-X, also known as the Delta Clipper.
The DC-X was a one-third scale prototype for a reusable single stage to orbit (SSTO) vertical launch vehicle. McDonnell Douglas was originally contracted by the Department of Defense to build DC-X, but after DOD cut funding it was transferred to NASA.
It was to be succeeded by the DC-Y, which would have attempted orbital flight, but once DC-X was cancelled the DC-Y program was never funded.
Below is film footage of the final test flight of the DC-XA, the NASA version of Delta Clipper, on July 7, 1996. A landing strut failed to extend due to a disconnected hydraulic line, causing the vehicle to fall over and leak liquid oxygen, causing a fire. NASA declined to fund repairs and further research, so the program was cancelled.
Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: CaughtOnTapeTV YouTube channel.
Gemini and Apollo astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad was the DC-X flight manager for McDonnell-Douglas.
The inherited DC-XA was in competition with the NASA X-33 VentureStar contracted with Lockheed Martin. Several authors, including this 2013 Innerspace.net article, suggest many in NASA management wanted to see DC-X fail because it originated with DOD, while wanting to prove that the NASA X-33 project was more viable. X-33 was cancelled in 2001 due to technical difficulties with flight instability and excess weight.
McDonnell Douglas merged in 1997 with the Boeing Company.
A March 26, 2014 computer animation of Asteroid Redirect Mission Option B. Video source: NASA.gov Video YouTube channel.
The Orion crew retrieves a sample from the boulder. This video was posted on March 25, 2015, a year later than the above animation. Video source: NASA.gov Video YouTube channel.
UPDATE March 27, 2015 — NASA has released a video that combines new asteroid rendezvous animation with the crew animation. Video source: NASA.gov Video YouTube channel.
When the Barack Obama administration's first NASA budget was presented to Congress on February 1, 2010, it proposed cancelling the Constellation program. Constellation claimed to be a lunar human spaceflight program, but in reality it was a pork-laden fiasco that was years behind schedule and billons of dollars over budget. The October 2009 Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee report concluded that Constellation wouldn't send people to the Moon until the end of the 2020s, if ever, and even then there were no plans for a lunar lander.
The executive summary began with this sentence:
The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory.
So the Obama administration proposed cancelling Constellation. The savings would be used to extend the International Space Station, and to prime the pump on commercial cargo and crew programs that would service ISS after the Space Shuttle program retired in 2011.
Members of the congressional space subcommittees unleashed a firestorm of outrage.
Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So we’ll start — we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.
Although those words have been cited many times in the five years since, often overlooked is the following paragraph:
Critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies. So I’m challenging NASA to break through these barriers. And we’ll give you the resources to break through these barriers. And I know you will, with ingenuity and intensity, because that’s what you’ve always done.
Earlier in the speech, Obama had proposed:
We will invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced “heavy lift rocket” — a vehicle to efficiently send into orbit the crew capsules, propulsion systems, and large quantities of supplies needed to reach deep space. In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models; we want to look at new designs, new materials, new technologies that will transform not just where we can go but what we can do when we get there. And we will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it.
Congress really hated that part.
It meant an end to the pork flowing to the districts and states of key Congressional members representing NASA space centers and contractors. In the worst recession since the Great Depression, thousands of Constellation-related jobs would be eliminated.
NASA was originally created in 1958 as an aerospace research and development agency. The 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act called for the new agency to “contribute materially” to “one or more” of a list of objectives.
One objective was, “The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles.”
But an unintended consequence of President John F. Kennedy's Moon program was that it morphed NASA into a Congressional porkfest. The administrations of Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson assured that Apollo contracts were distributed across the nation.
That tradition remains unchanged a half-century later.
As the above 2003 graph illustrates, NASA likes to brag that it generates jobs in every state — which conveniently assures political support for its continued existence.
So Congress ignored Obama's proposal to increase NASA’s budget by $6 billion over the next five years, and instead directed that Shuttle and Constellation contractors be shifted to a program Congress chose to create itself — the Space Launch System. It was dubbed the Senate Launch System by its critics.
Not only was NASA ordered by Congress to design SLS using existing Shuttle and Constellation technology, but NASA was also ordered to use existing Shuttle and Constellation contractors. Section 304 of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act orders the NASA Administrator to “minimize the modification and development of ground infrastructure and maximize the utilization of existing software, vehicle, and mission operations processes.”
So much for new technology.
The political compromise that came out of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act was that, on paper, NASA was going to Mars via an asteroid, so long as SLS and the Orion crew vehicle were used.
Of course, Congress didn't provide adequate funding so, as I write this, the first uncrewed SLS launch is officially two years behind the December 31, 2016 operational date mandated by Section 301(c)(2) of the 2010 Act, and by my estimation it's already slipped again into 2019.
For the last five years, NASA has soldiered on, engaging in the polite fiction that SLS and Orion will take humanity to Mars in the 2030s via an asteroid.
The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) robotic craft would use solar-electric propulsion, intending to evolve that technology towards one day reducing travel time to Mars.
Once again ... Congress hated it.
The House space subcommittee drafted legislation trying to forbid NASA from doing an asteroid mission, although it eventually failed to pass through both houses of Congress. Subcommittee chair Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) called ARM “a costly and complex distraction.” It should be noted that Rep. Palazzo's district includes Stennis Space Center, which tests the traditional liquid propellant engines that would be rendered obsolete by solar-electric propulsion.
Absent any financial support from Congress, NASA tried to figure out a way to make ARM work within projected budget constraints.
Last year, we learned that NASA was studying two options. The grand rhetoric about rearranging our solar system by moving around asteroids was dropped, as NASA contemplated simply picking a boulder off an asteroid instead.
That option, known as Option B, has won.
An artist's concept of the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle landing atop a boulder. Image source: NASA.
NASA announced on March 25 that “a robotic spacecraft will capture a boulder from the surface of a near-Earth asteroid and move it into a stable orbit around the moon for exploration by astronauts, all in support of advancing the nation’s journey to Mars.”
“The Asteroid Redirect Mission will provide an initial demonstration of several spaceflight capabilities we will need to send astronauts deeper into space, and eventually, to Mars,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight.”
The press release stated that “NASA has identified three valid candidates for the mission so far: Itokawa, Bennu and 2008 EV5,” with possibly one or two more candidates.
Although most members of the space subcommittees will probably yawn at the latest proposal, one key Republican may be in a position to support ARM.
Space News reported on March 25 that Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is a supporter of solar-electric propulsion. As chair of the House subcommittee that oversees NASA appropriations, he's in a position to influence how much money NASA gets for its programs.
Culberson's west Houston district doesn't include Johnson Space Center, but a 2006 study of his 7th district estimated that over 3,000 former or retired NASA employees live there.
UPDATE March 27, 2015 — Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle tweeted that he's just completed an interview with Rep. Culberson. The congressman is most definitely opposed to ARM. Eric cited his Adrift series article from December 2014 in which he quotes Culberson:
I don’t think there’s a clear consensus on much in Congress, but we all agree that pushing a rock around in space is a waste of taxpayer dollars that we don’t have to spare.
My personal opinion about ARM is that I've always seen it as a back-door attempt to push some of the new technologies promoted by Obama five years ago, solar-electric propulsion in particular.
Recent history has shown us that, as the saying goes, the biggest obstacle to progress is Congress.
Technical innovation won't come from NASA. It will come from the private sector.
Since the Obama administration has been a big proponent of commercial space, I hoped that the original “Option A” would transfer technologies to the nascent U.S. commercial asteroid mining industry, to companies such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries.
An artist's concept of a Deep Space Industries craft capturing an asteroid for harvesting. Image source: Deep Space Industries.
Option A would seem far more suited for that than Option B. Asteroid mining companies would like to capture and move an asteroid to a stable parking place, so it can be harvested by a fuel processor. (For more on this, see my March 15 book review of Asteroid Mining 101.)
Option B doesn't seem to do much for technology transfer, other than the solar-electric propulsion demonstration and perhaps some precision robot flying.
But it's something for SLS and Orion to do — even if it maintains the polite fiction that this is a first step in human travel to Mars.
Hopefully NASA will run a contest to name its asteroid landing vehicle. I propose “Plucky.”
Click the arrow to watch the March 17, 2015 House Armed Services Committee hearing.
On March 17, 2015, the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Strategic Forces held a hearing to discuss the consequences of Congress passing a law in 2014 that forbids the Department of Defense from acquiring launch services with any rocket using engines built in Russia.
SEC. 1608. PROHIBITION ON CONTRACTING WITH RUSSIAN SUPPLIERS OF ROCKET
ENGINES FOR THE EVOLVED EXPENDABLE LAUNCH VEHICLE PROGRAM.
(a) In General.— Except as provided by subsections (b) and (c),
beginning on the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of
Defense may not award or renew a contract for the procurement of
property or services for space launch activities under the evolved
expendable launch vehicle program if such contract carries out such
space launch activities using rocket engines designed or manufactured
in the Russian Federation.
(b) Waiver. — The Secretary may waive the prohibition under
subsection (a) with respect to a contract for the procurement of
property or services for space launch activities if the Secretary
determines, and certifies to the congressional defense committees not
later than 30 days before the waiver takes effect, that —
(1) the waiver is necessary for the national security interests
of the United States; and
(2) the space launch services and capabilities covered by the
contract could not be obtained at a fair and reasonable price
without the use of rocket engines designed or manufactured in the
(1) In general. — The prohibition in subsection (a) shall not
apply to either —
(A) the placement of orders or the exercise of options
under the contract numbered FA8811-13-C-0003 and awarded on
December 18, 2013; or
(B) subject to paragraph (2), a contract awarded for the
procurement of property or services for space launch activities
that includes the use of rocket engines designed or
manufactured in the Russian Federation that prior to February
1, 2014, were either fully paid for by the contractor or
covered by a legally binding commitment of the contractor to
fully pay for such rocket engines.
(2) Certification. — The Secretary may not award or renew a
contract for the procurement of property or services for space
launch activities described in paragraph (1)(B) unless the
Secretary, upon the advice of the General Counsel of the Department
of Defense, certifies to the congressional defense committees that
the offeror has provided to the Secretary sufficient documentation
to conclusively demonstrate that prior to February 1, 2014, the
offeror had either fully paid for the rocket engines described in
such paragraph or made a legally binding commitment to fully pay
for such rocket engines.
The upshot of all this is that the United Launch Alliance Atlas V, which launches from the Cape's Pad 41, uses RD-180 engines built by the Russian company NPO Energomash. RD-180s were used first on the Lockheed Martin Atlas III in 2000, then on the Atlas V in 2002. Lockheed Martin, a partner with Boeing in owning ULA, chose to use the RD-180s at the urging of the U.S. government which wanted to keep Russian engineers from defecting to hostile nations after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Russian Federation invaded Crimea in February 2014. The United States government in response began to impose economic sanctions on Russian government leaders and those who were close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. One of those was Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin, who heads Russia's aerospace sector.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin. Image source: The Moscow Times.
Putin and Rogozin only succeeded in convincing Congress it's time to end any American business relationships with Russia for rocket engines, at least those to be used for launching military payloads. Congratulations.
Russian engines may still be used for non-military launches, such as the recent Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission for NASA that launched from Pad 41 on March 12. In December, Orbital Sciences ordered RD-181 engines for its Antares rocket, which launches its Cygnus cargo ship to the ISS from Wallops, Virginia.
Based on comments made by ULA CEO Tory Bruno during the March 17 hearing, it appears that ULA roughly has about forty RD-180s left in inventory. Each Atlas V launch uses one RD-180 engine.
But Bruno said that ULA intends to phase out the Atlas V for a new rocket dubbed the Next Generation Launch System (NGLS), and also phase out the Delta IV Medium class rocket that launches from the Cape's Pad 37.
The NGLS would use either new liquid oxygen and methane engines developed by Blue Origin, or as a backup liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene engines developed by Aerojet-Rocketdyne.
Bruno hopes to downsize ULA operations at the Cape to one launch complex that would be “mission agnostic” regardless of launch vehicle. Which complex will be used was not specified, and is currently under review.
The purpose of the hearing was to discuss what happens when a “gap” opens near the end of the decade, after RD-180 engines run out but before NGLS is certified by the U.S. Air Force for military use.
No one brought up what happens to ULA's commercial and civilian government customers.
The Atlas V is the launch vehicle for the Boeing CST-100, one of two NASA commercial crew vehicles (along with the SpaceX Dragon V2) scheduled to deliver astronauts to the ISS in 2017. ULA is currently building a service tower at Pad 41 to accommodate crew launches.
An artist's concept of the Boeing CST-100 atop an Atlas V at Pad 41. Image source: NASA.
Boeing is required to perform an uncrewed test flight in mid-2017, then a crewed demonstration flight by late 2017. After that, Boeing is guaranteed a minimum of two crew deliveries to the ISS under the current contract.
The CST-100 was certified by NASA for launch on the Atlas V. Presumably NASA would require a new round of certification before using CST-100 on the NGLS.
Other commercial companies plan on using the Atlas V.
Sierra Nevada has already acquired an Atlas V for a November 2016 uncrewed test flight with its Dream Chaser. Although Dream Chaser didn't get a commercial crew contract, Sierra Nevada recently submitted a bid for the next round of commercial cargo deliveries.
Orbital will use the Atlas V for one or two Cygnus cargo deliveries to the ISS in late 2015 / early 2016, until the Antares RD-181 upgrade is ready.
Video animation of the Atlas V launching a Boeing CST-100 capsule to a Bigelow habitat. Video source: theworacle YouTube channel.
In addition to the ISS, Boeing has a partnership with Bigelow Aerospace to deliver crew to Bigelow's B-330 expandable habitats which are projected to launch in 2018.
Both commercial crew companies are guaranteed a minimum of two and a maximum of six crew deliveries under this current round. Since the Atlas V may no longer be available by the end of the decade, it suggests that Boeing might only get two flights while SpaceX could get up to six to cover the gap.
If the United States government gets to the point where they have to choose priorities between launching military payloads or civilian, who gets the priority?
(The military, obviously.)
In January 2014, the U.S. Air Force awarded a thirty-six core block buy to ULA, a mix of Atlas V and Delta IV boosters. The mix isn't clearly specified, and Bruno said in the hearing he intends to phase out the Delta IV medium class configuration as the Atlas V is cheaper to fly. No one at the hearing raised the question, but it would seem possible that, as ULA approaches the gap, it might be possible for civilian launches to be bumped.
According to witnesses on the hearing's second panel, it could be five to seven years before NGLS is ready to fly.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), who chairs the subcommittee, pointed out that the gap would give SpaceX a de facto launch monopoly by the end of the decade. That isn't the fault of SpaceX. It's the fault of Congress for imposing a ban on RD-180 engines without thinking about the consequences.
Congress is also to blame for rejecting President Barack Obama's Fiscal Year 2011 NASA budget proposal to replace the RD-180 with a U.S. engine. According to a February 22, 2010 Space News article, “NASA says it intends to put enough money into first-stage propulsion development to produce 'a fully operational engine' by 2020, or possibly sooner if it can establish a partnership with the U.S. Defense Department.” But Congress said no.
It appears that the only way out of this mess is to relax the RD-180 ban, allowing ULA to stockpile enough engines until NGLS is certified.
In theory, the Boeing CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser are compatible with the SpaceX Falcon 9. So if the Defense Department calls dibs on remaining Atlas V boosters, perhaps it's more business for SpaceX.
Click the arrow to watch the presentation. Video source: Spacevidcast/TMRO YouTube channel.
In June 2009, the new Obama administration appointed the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee to, according to its charter, “conduct an independent review of ongoing U.S. human spaceflight plans and programs, as well as alternatives, to ensure the Nation is pursuing the best trajectory for the future of human spaceflight — one that is safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable.”
The committee's first hearing was June 17, 2009 at the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington, D.C. The committee heard presentations on Constellation, the International Space Station, Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, and Enhanced Expendable Launch Vehicles.
One presentation was by SpaceX founder Elon Musk. At the time of this hearing, SpaceX was still a year away from its first Falcon 9 demonstration flight in June 2010. SpaceX had launched its prototype Falcon 1 four times; the first three launches were failures, but the fourth launch in September 2008 was its first success. The final Falcon 1 launch, also a success, would be in July 2009.
This week's Retro Saturday is Musk's presentation to the committee, which lasts 17 minutes. At that point, he was all talk but had accomplished little. Some critics dismissed him as a “hobbyist.”
Five years later, the critics are the ones lacking credibility.
Scott J. “Doc”
Horowitz, the Selection Authority at
NASA Headquarters for the COTS
Space Act Agreements, described the
proposals as ranging from “somebody
[who] was going to build a rocket
engine in their garage” to some that
offered to conduct a study without
building any physical hardware, and
“everything in between.”
The companies ranged from major
names in the aerospace industry
such as The Boeing Company
and Lockheed Martin Corp. (which
submitted two proposals, one for
all four capabilities, and one for only
Capability B), to established but
smaller-scale launch companies such
as Orbital Sciences Corp., to littleknown
startups such as PanAero Inc.
and Venturer Aerospace.
The six finalists were:
Andrews Space Corp.
Rocketplane Kistler Limited Inc. (RpK)
Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX)
Transformational Space Corp.
Why none of the legacy aerospace companies made the finalist list isn't stated, but an explanation can be found on page 22:
The COTS program aimed specifically
to allow small startup ventures
the chance to compete in NASA
procurements, in addition to the group
of large, established contractors
that usually dominated major NASA
spaceflight contracts. Many of the
companies interested in participating
in NASA’s new program belonged
to what was dubbed the NewSpace
community of space entrepreneurs
and supporters who actively worked
to promote the development of
commercial spaceflight. Several
provisions of the COTS [Space Act Agreements]
were deliberately crafted to allow
companies of all sizes to participate.
Page 29 of the report notes, “Significantly, none of the
selected companies represented
the major names in the industry with
decades of government contract
experience, but rather exemplified the
emerging NewSpace community.”
This didn't happen — a Rocketplane Kistler concept of operation. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: NASA.
SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler won the first two contracts in August 2006, but RpK was booted from the program in October 2007 after it failed to achieve early milestones. NASA replaced RpK with Orbital Sciences, a 25-year old aerospace company specializing in small and medium-class systems for government and commercial customers.
Less than six years after receiving its contract, SpaceX in May 2012 became the first commercial company to deliver cargo to the ISS, with a demonstration flight that launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Orbital's demonstration flight launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops, Virginia in September 2013.
Orbital also became the first commercial company to have a failure, when on October 28, 2014 the Antares booster exploded a few seconds after launch. An official cause has not been announced.
Click the arrow to watch the loss of Orbital Sciences Orb-3 on October 28, 2014.
But the idea of choice in commercial providers proved its worth, because NASA and its payloads moved over to future flights of the SpaceX Dragon.
Orbital has required new Russian RD-181 engines for Antares, but until the rocket is certified the Cygnus will launch on United Launch Alliance Atlas V boosters from the Cape.
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.
Proposals were due by November 14, 2014. A complete list of bidders hasn't been released, although according to the press release NASA anticipates making a decision by May 2015.
When COTS began in January 2006, it's reasonable to assume few took the program seriously. The ISS was five years away from completion. The flagship mission for NASA, as proposed by President George W. Bush on January 14, 2004, was not commercialization of space but a new big government human spaceflight program called Constellation. COTS was to deliver cargo to ISS, while the Constellation Ares I would deliver crew. The Bush administration projected ending the ISS by 2016 to pay for Constellation Ares V flights beyond Earth orbit, so the need for commercial supply services was probably considered temporary at best before the government reasserted its spaceflight monopoly.
But a funny thing happened on the way to splashing ISS into the Pacific Ocean.
The Obama administration saved it.
Congress finally agreed to officially cancel Constellation in early 2011. The ISS was saved, and funding flowed to both commercial cargo and commercial crew. The latter had been on the books since the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office was founded in November 2005, but never funded.
The result is that the commercial environment in 2015 is vastly improved from ten years ago.
SpaceX and Boeing, the two commercial crew contractors, have deals to deliver crew not only to ISS but also the Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitats scheduled to launch in 2018.
A notional image of a commercial crew vehicle delivering astronauts to a Bigelow space station. Image source: Bigelow Aerospace.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a prototype, was delivered March 12 to NASA. It will launch on the SpaceX CRS-8 delivery flight, currently scheduled for September. The BEAM will be berthed at ISS for two years to demonstrate the technology.
NASA executives in recent years have stated they believe the ISS will be phased out in the mid-2020s as Bigelow stations become more established.
So that may explain why OldSpace legacy aerospace companies are publicly releasing their proposals to compete with SpaceX and Orbital.
The cargo CST-100 also would offer unpressurized "upmass" to the International Space Station (ISS) in its throwaway service module, using space freed up by the removal of launch-abort engines and other hardware that would be unnecessary in the absence of a crew. A win in the CRS-2 bidding would lower the cost of both the crew and cargo versions of the commercial space capsule, Boeing says ...
On the outside, the cargo-version CST-100 will be largely indistinguishable from the crew version that Boeing is building under its contract with NASA, which is potentially worth $4.2 billion for six flights to the ISS. The cargo craft will have the same outer mold line, expendable service module and solar arrays for power. Inside the crew cabin, though, the displays, seats and life support system will be removed and replaced with a cargo pallet able to handle at least 2,500 kg (5,500 lb.) of food, clothing and hardware for the orbiting outpost.
The four large hypergolic launch abort system engines in the service module will be removed, making room for unpressurized cargo, and half of the 24 orbital maneuver and control engines will be pulled as well because they won’t be needed to pull a crew away from a failing Atlas V launch vehicle. In that sense, the Boeing cargo vehicle will have the same sort of capability as the unpressurized "trunk" now unique to the SpaceX Dragon cargo carrier.
Unlike the Dragon, which returns to a water landing, the CST-100 cargo carrier would return to dry land with a combination of parachutes and airbags to cushion the impact.
Lockheed Martin announced on March 13 a more intricate system billed as a “solution.”.
A Lockheed Martin Jupiter/Exoliner promotional video. Video source: LockheedMartinVideos YouTube channel.
The Jupiter spacecraft builds upon the design of MAVEN, now in orbit around Mars, and OSIRIS-REx, currently under construction for an asteroid sample return mission. The Exoliner container is based upon teammate Thales Alenia Space’s cargo carrier used on the Automated Transfer Vehicle. The robotic arm, built by teammate MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, draws from technology used on the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle for more than 30 years.
The Lockheed Martin CRS-2 solution brings many affordability benefits with it. Not only does it employ a reusable spacecraft and create the option to host commercial payloads, it’s also designed to support future exploration missions in deep space. Jupiter and the Exoliner cargo carrier can be pre-positioned with supplies of food, fuel, water and equipment for astronauts to use as they travel on manned missions farther into space than ever before.
The video ends by showing Dream Chaser landing on a runway, then being unloaded like any other cargo delivery plane at a commercial airport. In April 2014, Sierra Nevada announced a deal to explore landing at Houston's Ellington Field, which is seeking certification as a commercial spaceport. It's not hard to visualize Dream Chaser returning ISS cargo to NASA's doorstep at Johnson Space Center.
A computer generated concept of Dream Chaser landing at Houston Spaceport. Image source: Sierra Nevada Corporation.
OldSpace legacy aerospace companies are notorious for refusing to invest money in their programs unless a government pays for it. Those days are ending, so it will be interesting to see how much money Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada are willing to pour into developing their commercial cargo vehicles if NASA doesn't pay for most or all of it.
For those with a long view, the future isn't ISS.
All this is happening because the Obama administration took seriously the promise of commercial space.
On March 5, I posted a blog article titled, “Orion's Slip is Showing”. It was about statements by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a March 4 House Appropriations subcommittee hearing implying that the Orion crew capsule won't be ready in time for the scheduled uncrewed test flight of Space Launch System in November 2018.
That test is called Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1.
The audit in name was a review of the Ground Systems Development and Operations project at Kennedy Space Center. GSDO is responsible for modernizing Kennedy Space Center into a multiuser spaceport. Launch Complex 39B, in theory, could be used not only for SLS but other commercial launch vehicles.
No potential customer has stepped forward, at least publicly.
An artist's concept of the ATK Liberty rolling out to Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39B. Original image source: ATK.
In May 2012, ATK proposed a rocket called Liberty using an abandoned composite capsule design as the crew vehicle for delivering astronauts to the International Space Station. Their concept drawings showed Liberty rolling out to 39B on the Ares 1 mobile launcher. But Liberty was a paper exercise, and after they lost in the commercial crew competition not much more has been said about Liberty.
But NASA is still required to develop 39B was a multi-user pad. The OIG notes that GSDO is divided into two omponents — Exploration Ground Systems, which focuses on preparing for launch of the SLS and Orion, and the 21st Century Space Launch Complex, which focuses on modernizing the infrastructure to support multiple users.
The OIG reports:
In August 2014, NASA committed to a first launch of the SLS — Exploration Mission 1 — by November 2018. Several issues make it particularly challenging for the GSDO Program to complete its SLS and Orion-related work by this date. To begin with, the Program is working to modernize a diverse set of existing facilities and equipment, much of which is more than 50 years old. This is also the first time NASA is designing launch infrastructure intended to accommodate a variety of vehicles rather than a single vehicle like Apollo or the Space Shuttle. Finally, NASA is managing GSDO, SLS, and Orion as three independent but coordinated programs. In contrast, for the Apollo, Space Shuttle, and Constellation Programs, NASA used a centralized approach with Headquarters assuming overall management responsibility. NASA is managing the three Programs in parallel — all with the same launch date and complex integration activities — through a cross-program integration structure. To this end, much of GSDO’s work is heavily dependent on the final requirements of the SLS and Orion Programs, both of which are still in development.
The OIG report cites in particular delays with the Spaceport Command and Control System (SCCS) software that will operate and monitor ground equipment as well as the firing room. SCCS is estimated to be five months behind. Since SCCS is to be formally tested on EM-1, if EM-1 is delayed because of Orion then SCCS validation will be delayed as well.
The report concludes:
While GSDO has made steady progress in renovating launch-related infrastructure, the Program must overcome significant technical risks and interdependency issues with the SLS and Orion Programs to meet NASA’s commitment for launch by November 2018.
During the March 4 hearing, Administrator Bolden stated that the Orion program would have its Key Decision Point C very soon, which would give a more reliable date for the availability of the EM-1 capsule. According to page 12 of the OIG report, that's scheduled for this month. “Reviews for the SLS and Orion Programs [are] to follow in May and August 2015, respectively,” according to the OIG. Bolden told the hearing that NASA would report back to Congress during the summer, so that would suggest the delay until 2019 will be formally announced in August.
If anyone at NASA has a sense of tradition, the announcement will come on August 27. That was the date in 2014 that NASA announced EM-1 had slipped into 2018. August 27th is a Thursday, if anyone wants to mark it on your calendar.
Dr. Lewis is presently Chief Scientist at Deep Space Industries, one of two companies (along with Planetary Resources) planning to harvest asteroids and other celestial objects for commercial operations. A planetary scientist by education and profession, Dr. Lewis is Professor Emeritus of Planetary Sciences at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory of the University of Arizona.
“Mining the Sky” is worth reading because it provides a justification and roadmap for incorporating the material and energy resources of our solar system into our world’s economy; and economic arguments may be the most long-lasting justifications for expanding our civilization into space.
This book is not easy. It is serious and you will have to work a bit to understand all it has to offer. But if you do the work and spend the time you will graduate into the class of crazies who change the future — or at least understand us, and what is happening as we change tomorrow.
My Political Science degree started feeling a bit threadbare around page 25, when Dr. Lewis begins 75 pages of extremely technical discussion about asteroids and their mineral potential. Here's a random sample, from page 42:
Both silicon and magnesium react readily with oxygen to form stable
oxides. The normal form of Si is as minerals containing the SiO2
molecular unit, and magnesium forms the MgO molecule. Iron, which
has a relatively smaller affinity for oxygen, can form metallic Fe as well
as oxides. In almost all meteorite groups, the most stable oxide of iron
is FeO (ferrous oxide). The minerals these four elements form are
metallic iron and the two very important “ferromagnesian” minerals
pyroxene and olivine. Olivine is a solid solution of Mg2SiO4 (forsterite)
and Fe2SiO4 (fayalite). The compositional extremes of any solid solution
(here forsterite and fayalite) are called the end-members of the solid
solution series. In meteorites with a low degree of oxidation, there is
little FeO compared to MgO, producing olivine of nearly pure forsterite
composition. Where FeO is more abundant (and where the amount of
metallic iron has been proportionately reduced by partial oxidation to
FeO) the relative amounts of FeO and MgO are closely comparable.
Pyroxene is also formed by combination of SiO2, MgO and FeO. Pyroxene
solid solutions of FeSiO3 (ferrosilite) and MgSiO3 (enstatite) are
common; however, the pure FeSiO3 end member is slightly unstable in
isolation, and does not exist in nature. Note also that, because of the
strong lithophilic behavior of Si and Mg, the most abundant element in
rocks by number of atoms is usually oxygen.
To quote from the classic Monty Python sketch, my brain hurts.
Throughout the book, some paragraphs run a half-page or more, which combined with the techno-jargon make for a very intimidating read. Having been a professional writer, I can tell you that one of the basics is to write short punchy sentences. It's easier to read, both to see and to comprehend.
After a while, I started skimming pages that were so technical as to be incomprehensible for the casual non-technical reader.
These chapters would be of more interest to a geologist, chemist or physicist with an interest in asteroid mining. If one of those fields is your expertise, then Dr. Lewis certainly gives you a lot to digest.
The graduate course in astrogeology eases up around page 100. (The main text ends at page 122, followed by two appendices totalling about 40 pages.) Chapter IX, Asteroid Mining and Processing, builds on all the technical information provided earlier in the book to discuss how all this can be executed.
An artist's concept of a fuel processor harvesting an asteroid. Image source: Deep Space Industries.
Although humanity has performed rendezvous and docking in cislunar space for almost fifty years, doing so with an asteroid is an entirely different skill. Dr. Lewis writes on page 101:
Not only do asteroids lack these civilized amenities, they are also wild
beasts. Asteroids, especially those smaller than several hundred
kilometers in diameter, are often extremely irregular in shape. Their
surfaces are a chaotic patchwork of craters, rocks, rubble, and dust.
Some areas may be large expanses of stainless steel; others may be deep
loosely-packed regolith containing rocks of all sizes, and some may be
extremely fragile and unstable “fairy castles” of fine-grained dust. In
addition, asteroids rotate on their own schedule, not in accord with preplanned
(The entire paragraph is more than a page long, broken only by a page break.)
For my education and interest, the generalist discussions of the economic practicalities of space commerce were the most important — not only for we liberal arts majors, but also for politicians and other decision makers who might be cajoled into investing government dollars in such future schemes.
Dr. Lewis, by this point in the book, has documented that because iron and nickel are so plentiful in asteroids, it makes sense to use them for construction in space, rather than returning those metals to Earth and launching them again.
He corrected a mistaken assumption I had, which is that platinum-group metals (PGMs) are plentiful in asteroids. They're not, but they can be extracted as byproducts from other harvesting operations. Dr. Lewis writes:
Among the byproducts of carbonyl extraction of iron and nickel are
cobalt, platinum-group metals, and semiconductor nonmetals. Cobalt
can be extracted by a variant of the carbonyl process and used to make
high-temperature corrosion-resistant alloys for use in space. The
Platinum-Group Metals (PGMs) made available as byproducts of iron,
nickel, and cobalt extraction (platinum, osmium, iridium, rhodium,
ruthenium and palladium) are sufficiently valuable to be worth
returning to Earth. Two fundamental misconceptions about this
scheme appear weekly in the press: that we will go into space primarily
to mine PGMs for shipment to Earth, and that asteroids are a source of
Rare Earth Elements (REEs). The first makes no economic sense: PGMs
are a lucrative byproduct of a space-based ferrous metals industry. The
second makes no chemical sense: the rare earths are not found in
asteroidal native metal alloys, and indeed are not found in any plausible
ore in any meteorite.
On Page 123, Dr. Lewis lists what useful products might be fabricated in space. On his list are:
Structural Ferrous Metals
But let's not forget that space is vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, to quote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Asteroids need to be captured and returned to space factories where they will be harvested. The other option is to bring the factory to the asteroid, e.g. with a Bigelow Aerospace habitat, but still the asteroid has to be stabilized by stopping its spin.
The purpose of this proposed mission is to establish ground truth on
the physical and chemical nature of [a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA)] for planetary defense and
economic utilization purposes, while also providing a science-rich
exploration opportunity for manned missions. The retrieved asteroid,
once parked in lunar orbit, would be the site of resource extraction
experiments, but none of the products to be made there would be used
in space operations.
This ambitious mission is not intended to serve as a model for future
commercial missions dedicated to retrieving asteroid materials. The
list of available targets is severely limited by the fact that the spacecraft
cannot retrieve more than about 1000 tonnes. Asteroids of such low
mass are typically about 7 meters in diameter. Such small bodies are so
faint that they present almost impossible targets for spectral
characterization: they must pass exceptionally close to Earth to be
bright enough for spectral measurements. There is no way to
determine their density and mass without a precursor spacecraft
mission, and even that would be extremely demanding. But the
retrieval mission would fail if the asteroid turned out to be denser and
more massive than expected. This uncertainty drives the mission
planners to target even smaller asteroids, for which the problems of
mass and density determinations are even more severe.
I would like to see Dr. Lewis, his business partners at Deep Space Industries, their competitors at Planetary Resources and other experts such as retired astronaut Tom Jones unite to focus their efforts on a cogent, clearly articulated and compelling roadmap for creation of a robust asteroid mining and harvesting economy here in the United States. Using the successful commercial cargo and crew competitions as a model, NASA could offer incentives to companies, universities and entrepreneurs to develop the tools necessary to implement the vision laid out in this book by Dr. Lewis.
The United States is not the only nation capable of doing this, but the U.S. can do it long before its rivals if we put our minds to it.
Congress seems more interested in wasting billions of dollars on an Apollo redux with the Space Launch System and its Orion crew vehicle. Imagine what the $4 billion a year currently flushed into SLS/Orion could do to jump-start an asteroid mining economy.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), the new chair of the Senate space subcommittee, has declared himself a big proponent of NewSpace. He might be the place to start, if this nascent industry could unite and persuade his office to hold a hearing to discuss the idea.
As Dr. Lewis writes, the International Space Station can be a testbed for some of these early technologies. Take advantage of it while we can.
I often talk to prospective engineering students, or their parents, about their potential future in commercial space. I encourage them to enter the field of robotics, knowing that this skill will be vital when the day comes that asteroid mining is a reality.
For those of a technical mind capable of understanding this book, I would strongly recommend it.
But if you graduated from college with a liberal arts degree ... this book will be a long hard slog for you.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, leverages key innovations in lightweight and compact materials, departing from a traditional rigid metallic structure. In its packed configuration aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft launched on a Falcon 9 rocket, the module will measure approximately 8 feet in diameter. Once attached to the space station’s Tranquility Node and after undergoing a series of hardware validations, the module will be deployed, resulting in an additional 565 cubic feet of volume — about the size of a large family camping tent — accessible by astronauts aboard the orbiting laboratory.
The Bigelow BEAM packaged for delivery to Kennedy Space Center. Image source: NASA.
NASA will own the BEAM, having paid Bigelow $18 million for the prototype. It's scheduled to launch to the International Space Station on SpaceX CRS-8 in fall 2015. After two years in service, NASA plans to return it to Earth in a SpaceX cargo Dragon so it can be inspected to determine if the prototype performed as expected.
Congress forced NASA to cancel TransHab in the 2000 NASA Authorization Act. Section 127 stated:
SEC. 127. TRANS-HAB.
(a) REPLACEMENT STRUCTURE- No funds authorized by this Act shall be obligated for the definition, design, procurement, or development of an inflatable space structure to replace any International Space Station components scheduled for launch in the Assembly Sequence adopted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in June 1999.
(b) EXCEPTION- Notwithstanding subsection (a), nothing in this Act shall preclude the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from leasing or otherwise using a commercially provided inflatable habitation module, if such module would —
(1) cost the same or less, including any necessary modifications to other hardware or operating expenses, than the remaining cost of completing and attaching the baseline habitation module;
(2) impose no delays to the Space Station Assembly Sequence; and
(3) result in no increased safety risk.
(c) REPORT- Notwithstanding subsection (a), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration shall report to the Congress by April 1, 2001, on its findings and recommendations on substituting any inflatable habitation module, or other inflatable structures, for one of the elements included in the Space Station Assembly Sequence adopted in June 1999.
Bob Bigelow read about the TransHab concept and licensed the technology from NASA. Fifteen years later, NASA will be its first customer.
A mockup of the Bigelow B-330 Olympus expandable habitat. Image source: Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The BEAM is the first step towards the larger Bigelow B-330, its name referring to its habitable volume of 330 cubic meters (about 11,650 cubic feet). B-330 (earlier named Nautilus and then BA-330) would be a fully owned and operated commercial enterprise. Unlike NASA's commercial cargo and crew programs, B-330 is 100% funded by Bigelow.
A full-scale mockup of the B-330 was visible at the March 12 media event in North Las Vegas. It's also featured in the newly released IMAX-format film Journey to Space by K2 Communications. The film shows the B-330 attached to a NASA Orion capsule as part of a habitat complex for a long-duration human spaceflight to Mars — demonstrating yet again that the opposite of progress is Congress.
A cutaway illustration of a Bigelow B-330. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Bigelow Aerospace.
The mockup inflatable is not the Bigelow B-330, but the third-generation Olympus, also known as the B2100, meaning it has a volume of 2,100 cubic meters (74,000 cubic feet). It's speculated that NASA's Space Launch System may be necessary to launch it into space.
NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier is quoted as saying NASA does not intend to return BEAM after two years of service. The BEAM will be jettisoned and burn up in the atmosphere.
The article also noted the sizable Japanese contingent at the media event.
Hiroshi Kikuchi, senior managing director of Japan Manned Space Systems Corp., told NBC News that a wide variety of clients could use the Bigelow-made stations — including manufacturing companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a major Japanese carmaker that he declined to identify, entertainment ventures and pharmaceutical companies.
“Many companies are waiting for the opportunity to use space station commercialization,” Kikuchi told NBC News. “Bigelow Aerospace could make it happen.”
Click the arrow to watch the film. Video source: AresTV YouTube channel.
Before Space Launch System, there was Constellation.
Before the Orion EFT-1 launch last December, there was Ares I-X.
This week's Retro Saturday is a look back at a NASA human spaceflight project that went so far off the rails President Obama proposed its cancellation in 2010, and Congress ultimately agreed.
The Ares Projects Quarterly Progress Report was released every three months to update the public on the status of Ares I, which was to be the launch vehicle to deliver NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. This is the first report, released in August 2006. All the reports are available on the AresTV YouTube channel.
Within a few months, the launch system came to be known as Constellation.
Within that system would be two launch vehicles. The first, Ares I, would use a Shuttle-derived solid rocket booster as a first stage to deliver crew to the International Space Station. A more powerful booster, Ares V, would send crews beyond Earth orbit to the Moon and eventually to Mars. The astronauts would be carried in a Crew Exploration Vehicle, which evolved into today's Orion capsule.
The Ares V was a paper fantasy. The 2009 Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, commonly known as the Augustine Committee for chairman Norm Augustine, found that the Ares V “is not available until the late 2020s, and there are insufficient funds to develop the lunar lander and lunar surface systems until well into the 2030s, if ever.”
In July 2006, the month before this first quarterly video was released, the Government Accountability Office released a report concluding that Ares I was already in trouble. The GAO concluded that NASA budget estimates were far too optimistic, as was the schedule timeline, and that NASA's acquisition strategy for the Crew Exploration Vehicle lacked a sound business case.
None of this, of course, is mentioned in the quarterly report. It shows how NASA centers across the country were participating in the early design and development of Ares I.
The report estimated that the first uncrewed Ares test flight would be in May 2009. It actually launched in October 2009.
Click the arrow to watch the Ares I-X test flight. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.
To be clear, the Ares I-X was not an Ares I. It was a first-stage prototype with dummy upper stages. The second uncrewed test flight, Ares I-Y, was scheduled for March 2014 when the program was cancelled.
Although early estimates foresaw Ares I operational by 2014, the Augustine Committee concluded it wouldn't be flying with humans until 2017 to 2019. Even worse, the Bush administration had planned to fund Ares I and Orion by decommissioning the ISS in 2016, meaning Ares I and Orion would have nowhere to go.
So in February 2010, the Obama administration proposed cancelling Constellation to extend the ISS through 2020, and fund a commercial crew program to deliver astronauts.
Unlike the House space subcommittee which sets policy, the appropriations committee actually provides the money, so this subcommittee is considered more powerful.
This hearing was generally amiable, but NASA Administrator Charles Bolden answered a question with a reply that suggests the first launch of the Space Launch System will slip yet again, this time into 2019.
After discussing the Orion crew capsule test flight last December 5, Bolden described the next launch in this program. Click here for his remarks, which begin at about 1 hour 9 minutes into the hearing.
The first flight for us has already occurred. That was Orion on the 5th of [December], so that was the first flight in our exploration program. Very successful. It did not, it was not, in its configuration for, you know, sending humans to deep space, but that was the first flight, very successful.
The second flight for us will come in sometime after 2018, to be precise. And the reason that I say “sometime after 2018” is we will tell this Congress much more precisely sometime this summer when we finish with the next milestone on Orion itself.
You may say, “I asked you about SLS. Why are you telling me about Orion?” Because they're a pair. We're not talking about flying SLS without Orion for deep space exploration just yet. So when we know when Orion will be ready to fly, then we will know when we can fly the SLS with Orion as a pair.
SLS, ground systems are ready now for a, we have a launch readiness date of late 2018, so that's in place. We don't have a launch readiness date yet for Orion.
When Congress ordered NASA in 2010 to create SLS, it wrote in Section 302 of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that “Priority should be placed on the core elements with the goal for operational capability for the core elements not later than December 31, 2016.”
Technically speaking, NASA said that the agency has a 70% confidence level that SLS will be “ready” by November 2018. “Ready” doesn't mean it will launch in that month; in fact, at that teleconference the NASA executives went to great lengths to stress that the November 2018 estimate applies only to the rocket, not to the Orion crew vehicle or the European Space Agency-built service module or the Kennedy Space Center ground systems upgrades.
The purpose of the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) flight is to send the Orion on an uncrewed test flight that could demonstrate orbits around the Moon before returning to Earth.
If the Orion, if the ESA service module, are not ready, then EM-1 doesn't launch.
So it appears that SLS at the most optimistic will launch for the first time more than two years behind the date mandated by Congress.
It should also bring into question how quickly Orion's prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, can deliver a crew vehicle.