Satellite Technology Feature Article
SpaceX's Case for Manned Missions
By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor
SpaceX's (News - Alert) proposal to NASA for the agency's CCiCap round makes a solid case for the company to be the next provider of U.S. manned spaceflight services and the first commercial one. Even if the company runs into development delays, it appears to be far ahead of other proposals by Boeing (News - Alert) and Sierra Nevada.
A PDF copy of SpaceX's CCiCap proposal can be found on NASA's website here, with various financial and proprietary details redacted -- don't want the bank account information floating around on a public document. The executive summary can be found starting on page 35 of the document and it rattles through a number of key accomplishments for SpaceX's march to manned flight, including a design for accommodating human-rating since the beginning and two successful flights of the Falcon 9 rocket/Dragon spacecraft with the second flight culminating in a successful rendezvous and berthing with the International Space Station (ISS). There have also been two successful splashdowns, showing the company has mastered heat shields and safe atmosphere entries.
SpaceX has nine cargo missions to ISS and up to 25 Falcon 9 flights scheduled before the first crew launch is attempted. Under CCiCap base period, the company will perform a live-fire pad abort test, an in-flight abort test and system level tests of structures, propulsion and mechanisms. Since the cargo Dragon has already successfully flown to ISS, NASA's already wrung the basic design through one set of safety requirements.
The full-up pad abort test is penciled in for December 2013, and will include a Dragon with integrated SuperDraco engines as the Launch Abort System (LAS), plus parachutes and supporting avionics. Four months later (April 2014), an in-flight abort test would take place, where a Dragon/Falcon 9 would be launched and the abort would occur at the point of "worst-case" dynamic loads where the Dragon has minimum performance margins to get away from the Falcon 9 rocket. All the work leads up to an integrated critical design review (CDR) for SpaceX to demonstrate that the design is mature enough to move to manned flight operations.
Under its optionally funded milestones, SpaceX proposes not one but two manned demonstration flights with non-NASA crew in 2015. The first flight would be a three day orbital mission up to 200 nautical miles with a "minimal" crew. A second flight will be conducted to ISS on December 2015.
Exactly how much optionally funded milestones would cost is not clear. NASA has redacted nearly everything in the SpaceX's optional milestones section, but we can make some guesses. Musk has previously pledged that the per seat cost on a SpaceX flight to ISS would be $20 million, assuming all seats are taken -- $140 million per flight. But there are 15 optionally funded milestones as a package, so there are other necessary (and paying) milestones involved to get to the ISS flight, so if NASA elected to take the optional funded milestones as a package, we're talking at least $280 million for two manned flights, plus payments for the 13 other redacted milestones.
Regardless, SpaceX has outlined a clear, timeline-aggressive path for building a safe and well-tested manned spacecraft system. Given the company's previous track record, it is not clear if they can hit the timeline as scheduled, but it is clear that they can meet the technical goals within the proposed budget.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman