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August 06, 2012

The Manned Commercial Space Race is On

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor


In the warm glow of NASA's announcement of its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) teleconference is a showdown race between upstart SpaceX (News - Alert) and old-school  Boeing, with Sierra Nevada shadowing the two in case one of the leaders stumbles. 

SpaceX has an aggressive timetable with a manned test flight as an option for 2015, but it has a track record of come up short in hitting launch dates, while Boeing (News - Alert) won't even be flight-testing hardware until 2015 at the earliest. Let the games begin!

NASA officials presented a series of slides outlining the plans for each vendor in a press conference on August 3, explaining it how it was seeking "portfolio diversity" in working with Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada to develop commercial launch systems, encompassing not only rocket and capsule, but the full range of pre-flight, launch and in-orbit flight operations.

SpaceX could receive up to around $440 million if it accomplishes all of its 14 milestones on its proposed work plan. It will take its flight-tested Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule and move them to upgraded versions for manned spaceflight, adding thrusters to its capsule for crew escape in case of launch and for a pinpoint landing on the ground after reentry. 

Two live-fire tests are the key highlights of SpaceX's plan to prove to NASA it can provide a safe system for moving crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and low Earth orbit (LEO). 

In the last quarter of 2013 – a bit more than a year from now – it will conduct a pad abort test from its licensed SLC-40 launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, rocketing a Dragon capsule off the top of a Falcon 9 booster. An in-flight abort test is scheduled to take place in the second quarter of 2014, where a Falcon 9/Dragon combination will be launched on a normal trajectory and the Dragon will then light its escape engines to pull away and safely separate away from the Falcon 9.

It's an ambitious test schedule, building on SpaceX's early track record of launching the unmanned Falcon 9/Dragon. By 2015, SpaceX should have at least four to five successful cargo flights to ISS, adding to the company's (and NASA's) experience with the vehicle.  

On the other hand, the critical path item is integrating SpaceX Super Draco thrusters into the basic design. Problems with either the thruster hardware or integration will end up delaying the aggressive test schedule.

Boeing has 19 milestones on its work plan, with the ability to earn up to $460 million during the 21 month CCiCap work period. Key work under its plan is a launch adapter to fit the CST-100 capsule to the ULA Atlas V, a ground test of the dual-engine Centaur upper stage for the Atlas V, and a lot of software and avionics work. Boeing has a late 2016 crewed test flight penciled in.

Lurking in the background is Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser space plane. Sierra Nevada could get $212.5 million for nine milestones. Highlight include wind tunnel, propulsion, and in-flight drop tests of a Dream Chaser test article.   If brought to fruition, Dream Chaser would be launched on top of an Atlas V rocket and return to earth at the same runway where the Space Shuttles landed in Florida.

Unlike Boeing and SpaceX's offer, Dream Chaser will not be brought to a "Critical Design Review" level by NASA for preparation for a manned flight. NASA is doing this for various spoken and unspoken reasons. The official line is NASA wants enough "portfolio" diversity so it can have a gliding body as well as a couple of capsules available in case Boeing or SpaceX run into difficulties. Unspoken is NASA's ongoing desire to have another space plane that can deliver a softer reentry ride than a ballistic capsule and can land at a runway. 

Given the influx of money into commercial space projects, one option for Sierra Nevada may be to seek a private investment deal after the CCiCap program. Last year, a Sierra Nevada executive estimated the total cost to take Dream Chaser to first flight would be in the ballpark of a billion dollars. A post-CCiCap investment package in the neighborhood of $500 million could happen.


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Edited by Braden Becker



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