All three of the main contenders competing to return domestic crew launch capability to the United States are making good progress via the latest progress reports to the Commercial Crew Program (CCP). Boeing’s CST-100 and SNC’s Dream Chaser both passed new milestones recently, while SpaceX prepare for a pad abort test for the crewed version of their Dragon spacecraft.
The Drive Toward Commercial Crew Capability:
The United States, a country that still classes itself as the leader in space, lost its ability to launch its own astronauts into orbit when Atlantis concluded her – and the Shuttle fleet’s – last mission in 2011.
Plans were already in place to handover the realm of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to commercial providers, allowing NASA to refocus on deep space exploration. However, due to the lack of funding support, there was always going to be a gap between the end of Shuttle and the first flights of new vehicles transporting American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
The greatest challenge related to the gap between the end of Shuttle and the first commercial crew provider – with the gap requiring the use of the Russian Soyuz to transport astronauts to the Station, thus allowing a continued US presence on the orbital laboratory.
While the cooperation of the Russian space program for this role has been more than helpful, including during the grounding of the Shuttle fleet in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster, hundreds of millions of dollars continue to be signed over to Roscosmos for the purchasing of seats on the Soyuz.
There’s also an element of political risk associated with the outsourcing of NASA crew transportation, as highlighted by the ongoing events in the region. However, space flight has a historical tendency to continue such cooperation despite disagreements between the two nations.
Currently, the first commercial crew launch with NASA astronauts to the ISS is slated for December, 2017 – a mission with the designation USCV-1 (US Crew Vehicle -1).
However, Soyuz remains on the manifest even after that date, providing a near-back up role for the commercial vehicle. NASA is also considering adding more Soyuz seats, past the six seats they are purchasing throughout 2017.
“NASA needs to made a decision on whether or not the U.S. should extend the contract with the Russians for additional seats on the Soyuz, because there is a three-year lead-time with regard to long-lead parts for that program,” noted minutes from the recent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP).
“There are some difficult options. Will commercial providers be ready by 2017? Providing some margin may seem like a good thing to do, but that would take focus, incentive, attention, and business away from the commercial providers. There is even the question whether it would be possible to buy long-lead items from the Russians.”
This Catch 22 scenario involves hundreds of millions of NASA dollars being sent to Russia to purchase seats at relatively expensive prices, money that could be used to accelerate the CCP.
“If NASA needs to go back to Congress and request more funding for Soyuz seats (not currently in the plan), perhaps it could ask instead for additional funds that would help to increase the probability of the commercial providers being ready on time,” noted the ASAP. “These are things that NASA must think about in the months ahead.”
However, the ASAP noted concerns about a “hard deadline of 2017” due to safety implications. “History has shown that those constraints can lead to shortcuts that affect safety. This will be an important decision.”
The CCP is enjoying a large amount of success, with all three of its main contenders performing well during the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) contract phase.
SpaceX continues to lead the way, with their Dragon spacecraft currently looking forward to its fourth trip to the ISS, on what will be its third Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission.
Upgrading the spacecraft to be able to carry crew involves work on the spacecraft itself, such as adding seats, instrumentation, upgrades to flight software and the additions of all the home comforts the spacecraft will require to host a crew flying to the orbital outpost.
The spacecraft will also require the addition of a Launch Abort System (LAS), allowing Dragon to make a quick getaway in the event of a serious problem with its noisy partner, the Falcon 9 v1.1. The LAS on Dragon involves the use of the vehicle’s SuperDraco thrusters.
According to Tom Mueller, Co-Founder and VP Propulsion for SpaceX, the pad abort test is currently tracking a July target. This will be followed by a high altitude abort test.
Following a successful parachute test as part of their commercial crew aspirations, SpaceX is also preparing to host increasingly detailed reviews of the company’s integrated systems and progress on its ground systems.
“United Launch Alliance was an integral partner in both of these milestones, ensuring that the launch vehicle adapter and emergency detection system were fully functioning and safe for our future passengers,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing Commercial Programs.
The EDS is an integrated set of hardware and software that will operate with the avionics systems of the Atlas V rocket as it lifts off and ascends uphill. Any serious issues and the EDS will send a signal to the CST-100 to trigger escape thrusters on the spacecraft.
Engineers successfully trained the software through a series of emergency scenarios to verify the performance of the escape system. However, it was Atlantis’ final commander – Chris Ferguson, now Boeing’s Crew and Mission Operation – that provided hands on testing of the abort scenarios.
Sitting inside a simulator replica of the spacecraft, Captain Ferguson demonstrated how the CST-100’s flight computers would immediately relinquish control of the spacecraft to the pilot, akin to turning off the autopilot on an aircraft.
“A tireless engineering development and analysis effort since the preliminary design review early last year has led to the success of two critical milestone completions,” added Mr. Mulholland.
Next up will be the Critical Design Review (CDR) of the spacecraft’s primary structure design of the CST-100, in order to determine if the spacecraft as a whole is ready for manufacturing.
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) also made yet more progress with their Dream Chaser’s development path, following the conclusion of an incremental critical design review of the Dream Chaser lifting body spacecraft and its related systems, along with a database validation review based on data gathered during the company’s first free-flight test last October.
Despite a landing gear failure during the debut landing of the Engineering Test Article (ETA), the flight itself – the main objective of the test – was perfect.
The review – known as CCiCAP Milestone 4a – confirmed these findings, citing Dream Chaser flies and navigates as designed and can perform both controlled descents and landings.
Milestone 4a flight test objectives included the collection of all nominal glide slope and other critical aerodynamic data for the Dream Chaser in-flight profile.
The Dream Chaser team collected and evaluated data gathered from additional aerodynamic modeling instrumentation sensors specifically placed onto the Dream Chaser spacecraft prior to the flight test.
Upon thorough post flight analysis conducted by the SNC team and review by NASA, the results validated the aerodynamic performance of the Dream Chaser.
In addition, the first flight of a lifting body design in decades significantly matured its aerodynamic database in the subsonic region of flight.
In addition to demonstrating the Dream Chaser spacecraft’s autonomous flight control system in Milestone 4a, the Dream Chaser team was able to authenticate that over 40 aerodynamic predictions from extensive analysis matched within the limits of the actual vehicle performance.
“SNC’s Dream Chaser program is continuing its steady progress toward flight certification,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of SNC’s Space Systems.
“By completing these important milestones, SNC is confident that our vehicle design is sound and that the spacecraft can successfully fly within established and expected flight boundaries. SNC is now advancing and upgrading the Dream Chaser test spacecraft in preparation for additional flight tests in 2014.”
SNC is preparing for a review of data from numerous wind tunnel tests, which will further mature the Dream Chaser Space System design.
Wild card entry, Blue Origin is also preparing to complete its two remaining milestones under an unfunded Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) initiative extension.
“Already this year, NASA and its industry partners are making tremendous progress toward achieving the nation’s goal of restoring America’s capability to launch commercial passengers, including astronauts, from U.S. soil to low-Earth orbit,” said Kathy Lueders, CCP’s acting program manager.
“This year, we’ll see hardware testing, flight demonstrations and the award of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract. We’re excited for what the rest of this year holds and look forward to highlighting the tremendous progress our partners make to advance commercial human spaceflight.”
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