Friday, January 15, 2016

Planet Express

Click the arrow to watch the January 14, 2016 media event. Original video source: NASA TV.

After months of delays, NASA announced yesterday the three vendors who will receive contracts to deliver cargo to the International Space Station from 2019 through 2024.

The winners were incumbents SpaceX (Dragon), Orbital ATK (Cygnus) and newcomer Sierra Nevada (Dream Chaser).

According to the NASA press release:

The contracts, which begin upon award, guarantee a minimum of six cargo resupply missions from each provider. The contracts also include funding ISS integration, flight support equipment, special tasks and studies, and NASA requirement changes ...

NASA has not yet ordered any missions, but will make a total of six selections from each menu of mission options at fixed prices, as needed. Each task order has milestones with specified amounts and performance dates. Each mission requires complex preparation and several years of lead time. Discussions and engineering assessments will begin soon, leading to integration activities later this year to ensure all space station requirements are met, with the first missions beginning in late 2019.

The selection was widely viewed as the last chance for Dream Chaser. Earlier in its design, the spaceplane was a finalist for a commercial crew contract, but lost out in September 2014 to Boeing's CST-100 and the SpaceX crew Dragon. After reports that Boeing's bid was higher, SNC filed an appeal but lost in January 2015.

The company signed development deals with the European Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, hoping to diversify their portfolio, as well as a mini-Dream Chaser design for Stratolaunch. But without a NASA contract, it seemed unlikely that SNC could justify continued work on Dream Chaser.

SNC dropped earlier designs depicting the crew Dream Chaser and began to promote a cargo version. The company also signed deals to explore landing sites at Houston's Ellington Field and Huntsville International Airport. The idea was to underscore the ability of Dream Chaser to land at any runway of significant length, including those near NASA's space centers in Houston and Huntsville.

A cargo Dream Chaser promotional animation. Video source: SNCspacesystems YouTube channel.

After yesterday's announcement, SNC Executive Vice-President Mark Sirangelo told the Denver Business Journal:

Cargo flights for NASA will mean a funding stream to help SNC Space Systems finish Dream Chaser’s development over the next three years and prove it as a viable, commerical spacecraft for NASA and, eventually, other paying clients, Sirangelo said.

He declined to specify how many people he expects SNC Space may hire to work on Dream Chaser, but it will be significant, he said.

“What you’re seeing here is that, while we’re the prime contractor, this is really great news for us and for Colorado’s space industry as a whole,” Sirangelo said.

Boeing's cargo CST-100 and the Lockheed Martin Jupiter proposals were the losers, but shed no tears because their joint subsidiary United Launch Alliance will provide the Atlas V booster for Dream Chaser.

The new contract also requires Orbital ATK to provide a Cape Canaveral launch option for Cygnus. The first Cygnus launches were atop the company's Antares booster from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at the NASA center in Wallops, Virginia. After an October 2014 accident that destroyed the third Cygnus delivery, Orbital purchased two launches on an Atlas V from the Cape's pad 41. The first launch was in December 2015, with the second scheduled for March.

The December 6, 2015 launch of Cygnus on an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Future Cygnus deliveries will return to Wallops for the remainder of the existing contract, but Kennedy Space Center's Space Station Processing Facility is the hub for processing ISS experiments for shipment. If NASA purchases future Cygnus launches from CCAFS, that would imply that Wallops will lose its only commercial orbital launch company.

Launch Complex 41 will also be the site for Boeing crew CST-100 Starliner flights to ISS, with the first flights planned for late 2017. The crew access tower is under construction, with a tower topping-off ceremony held in December.

NASA commercial crew astronauts watch service tower assembly on December 10, 2015 at CCAFS Launch Complex 41. Image source: NASA.

Had SNC received a commercial crew contract, the crew Dream Chaser also would have launched from LC-41.

As for SpaceX, the company plans to evolve its Dragon capsule with a crew version that has side-mounted thrusters so it can land on a pad. The speculation is that cargo Dragon may go that way some day. NASA has indicated that it wants the initial crew Dragon flights will land in the ocean, so perhaps SpaceX can use a thruster-equipped cargo Dragon on a demonstration flight to calm NASA nerves.

During yesterday's media event, NASA officials emphasized that having three vendors will help stock the ISS for seven astronauts. Once commercial crew vehicles are flying by the end of 2017, the crew limit can increase from six to seven. The current limit is due to the Russian Soyuz carrying only three people, so with two docked at ISS that means escape seats for a total of six. The commercial crew vehicles will carry four people. A larger crew complement requires more supplies.

As ISS ramps up for more microgravity research, the addition of a third option is welcome news for principal investigators. If Dream Chaser proves capable of a soft landing at any runway, then researchers could have their experiments within hours. The addition of a seventh crew member also means more astronaut time available for performing experiments.

Yesterday's announcement was on the twelfth anniversary of President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration speech. Out of VSE came the President's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy report in June 2004 that recommended a new commercial space program which “will become a national treasure.”

The Bush proposal, ironically, would have ended the ISS in 2015 to fund what eventually would be known as Constellation. The “NewSpace” industry would have no destination to service.

President Barack Obama changed that in 2010 when his administration proposed cancelling Constellation to save ISS and extend it to 2020, as well as funding commercial crew to transport astronauts. In January 2014, the Obama administration proposed extending ISS to at least 2024. Congress formally approved the extension last year. Russia, Canada and Japan have also committed, leaving only the European Space Agency which is currently deliberating its continued participation.

The Obama administration's commitment to extend ISS to 2024 has been cited by commercial transport vendors, principal investigators and microgravity entrepreneurs as a major reason why they have decided to invest in the station as a research laboratory for the next eight years.

A Bigelow BEAM promotional film. Video source: Bigelow Aerospace YouTube channel.

By the middle of the 2020s, we'll know if the Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitat will be the next-generation technology for human activities in low Earth orbit and beyond. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is at KSC awaiting delivery to the ISS by SpaceX on its next Dragon delivery flight. SpaceX and Boeing will offer crew delivery to Bigelow customers, and it's been rumored that SNC's Dream Chaser will also be Bigelow-compatible.

We as a nation, and as a species, are at the dawn of humanity's biggest step towards a thriving commercial space economy. The epicenter will be Kennedy Space Center. We'll have a front row seat.

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