From Shuttle Sadness to Dragon Delight – USA prepares to regain domestic crew launch capability

by Chris Bergin

The gap in US domestic crew launch capability is coming to an end as soon as next month, concluding a convoluted and painful path that ultimately began when Columbia was lost during STS-107. The last time American astronauts launched from US soil was in 2011 with Shuttle Atlantis during STS-135. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is set to launch with Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken onboard the Crew Dragon as early as May 27.

For decades, the US relied on the Space Shuttle as its crew launch vehicle. While the Shuttle era was filled with accomplishments, its cost and complexity curtailed its envisioned role in taking the US space program forward and was ultimately shackled by safety issues that resulted in the loss of two orbiters and their crews.

The findings from The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) ultimately set NASA on a path to transition to a new crew vehicle, to be designed and built while the Space Shuttle Program concluded a final swansong of missions focused on the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS).

Proclaimed as the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) by President George W. Bush, it had the goal of sending US crews into deep space, and was announced while officially confirming the Space Shuttle Program was to end.

As with most grandiose plans, the planning phase underwent numerous iterations, as the “Moon, Mars and Beyond” plan centralized into a “Constellation Program (CxP)” that used a flagship “Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV)” that became the Orion of today – albeit after a multitude of design changes.

Orion was, in fact, originally set to take over Shuttle duties by first transporting astronauts on crew rotations to the International Space Station (ISS), missions that would mature the vehicle for its deep space role with CxP, a program that included two launch vehicles, Ares I – dedicated for Orion launches, and Ares V – the heavy lifter.

Ares I and Ares V, a 1.5 launch system architecture for LEO and BEO missions. NASA render.

A manifest was created, portraying a relatively small gap between the end of the Shuttle Program – designed to occur in 2010 to redirect Shuttle funding into CxP – to crew flights to the ISS on Orion.

The original plan also called for the end of funding for the ISS in 2017, allowing for a refocus on Lunar missions with Orion, Ares I and Ares V – with the latter lofting the Altair Lunar Surface Access Module or LSAM.

A realignment of funding was mostly required due to the cost of the hardware. Altair alone was classed as costing in the billions, a far cry from the costs expected for the commercial “Human Landing System” contract that is set to be announced this week.

The CxP manifest, created in 2005 and acquired by NSF L2

As with most major development programs, challenges soon arose with Ares I and Orion, further exacerbated by manifest stretch and additional demands on the Space Shuttle Program.

Shuttle, having fought back from the Columbia disaster, was beginning to hit its stride again. Numerous post-Columbia safety improvements were proving their worth, allowing for the addition of missions to the latter part of the program’s endgame.

This included Atlantis’ STS-125, a final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, albeit with Endeavour on rescue standby as STS-400 as this would become the only post-Columbia mission to fly without the “Safe Haven” of the ISS available to the crew.

This flagship mission – and all of the final Shuttle flights – was a complete success, to the point calls were made to extend the Shuttle program for several more years. These calls grew when problems within the Constellation Program – ranging from technical challenges and additional funding requirements – resulted in the schedule slipping almost to the point of year on year during reviews.

The infamous “Zero Based Vehicle” review for Orion – a morale-sapping effort that stripped the vehicle “to the bone” in an effort to control mass growth that was challenging Ares I’s capabilities – almost reset the clock on several years of development and proved to be one of the final straws for lawmakers, as the entire human space flight program underwent a major review in 2009.

The Augustine Commission’s “Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee” highlighted the problems with the Constellation Program, saw numerous presentations – including one from veteran astronaut Sally Ride that overviewed a potential life extension for the Space Shuttle – along with various alternative long-term goals for deep space exploration.

Ultimately, the findings resulted in President Obama canceling the Constellation Program the following year, soon followed by the President’s speech to the Kennedy Space Center workforce that Orion would be “saved” as a stripped-down crew escape vehicle on the ISS, while astronauts used the Russian Soyuz for crew rotations.

As part of the 2010 Authorization Act, NASA’s exploration plans began to center around a new Heavy Lift Launcher, utilizing former Shuttle and Constellation heritage hardware, providing Orion with a second life as a BEO (Beyond Earth Orbit) specific crew transport and ultimately redirecting NASA’s primary mission into deep space with a rocket that is now known as the Space Launch System (SLS).

Senator Bill Nelson overviews the SLS rocket that’s design was heavily influenced at the political level – as former NASA administrator Charlie Bolden – understood not to be a big fan of the rocket – looks on. Photo: US Senate.

While the cost and schedule of what is now known as the Artemis Program have more than its fair share of critics, the realignment of NASA’s own goals gave birth to the Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Building on the success of the commercial missions to resupply the ISS, NASA’s ability to purchase services from the commercial companies allowed the Agency to begin the “handover” of Low Earth Orbit and focus on sending NASA astronauts back to the Moon and eventually beyond.

Numerous award contract phases and milestones were created, starting with the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program in 2010.

By the time the program reached the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) award milestone, numerous suitors had failed in their bids, ranging from the United Space Alliance (USA) with its commercial Shuttle extension option, through to Blue Origin and t/Space.

Only three companies won through to the CCtCap phase – SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) – with the latter’s Dream Chaser crew vehicle a fan favorite and with high hopes of success based on NASA’s major wish for “dissimilar redundancy”.

Dream Chaser’s spaceplane concept, with the ability to return to a variety of runway options, provided a different option to Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Although Dream Chaser suffered a runway incident during her first Approach and Landing Test – notably caused by a malfunction with landing gear borrowed from a fighter jet – this didn’t play heavily into the downselect decision to initially award Boeing up to $4.2 billion and SpaceX up to $2.6 billion. With rumors of heavy lobbying from Boeing, SNC officially protested the decision, but their protest was ultimately denied.

Crew Dragon and Starliner racing to the ISS – envisioned by Nathan Koga for NSF/L2

Although the schedules for the transition to commercial crew transportation suffered numerous slips to its original readiness date, part of that was due to a funding squeeze that saw numerous NASA budgets place a higher focus on SLS – via the “exploration budget” element – funding, with numerous lawmakers championing support for a rocket that involved large contractors from their respective States.

Both of the winning commercial crew companies have suffered technical mishaps on the road to crewed flights, with Starliner suffering an abort motor fuel leak in 2018 that delayed its schedule before the Orbital Flight Test (OFT-1) failed to reach the ISS due to software issues.

Boeing is currently working to mitigate the problems found during the post-flight investigation before reflying the uncrewed test mission later this year.

Starliner launches on Atlas V – Photo by Mike Deep for NSF

SpaceX’s path hasn’t been plain sailing either. While DM-1 Dragon successfully completed its own docking mission to the ISS, a historic flight that set the stage for the return of US domestic crew flights, the vehicle later exploded on the test stand at Cape Canaveral during a key SuperDraco abort motor test. SpaceX has also had to conduct numerous tests of upgraded parachutes.

However, in typical SpaceX fashion, the company quickly fought back, with a successful In-Flight Abort test completed, along with numerous Mk3 parachute drop tests and the usual multitude of reviews.

Confidence is now high enough to set as NET (No Earlier Than) launch date of May 27 for Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to head uphill on the Crew Dragon and dock at the ISS.

Colonel Hurley will provide the perfect bridge between the final flight of the Space Shuttle – following his role as Atlantis’ pilot – and the return of US domestic crew launch capability, which is taking place from the same 39A launch pad at KSC, albeit after a SpaceX stylized revamp, as STS-135 launched from.

Crew Dragon launches on the IFA flight from 39A – photo by Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2

Unlike Orion, the gap to the following Crew Dragon mission will be short – providing all goes well with the DM-2 flight. The USCV-1 (US Crew Vehicle -1) mission is set to follow in the summer with Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Soichi Noguchi and Shannon Walker on board.

While Dragon is all set to win the “race” to become the first US crewed vehicle to arrive at the Station since Atlantis in 2011, the importance of Starliner becoming involved with crew rotation is vital to NASA.

The lack of dissimilar vehicle redundancy during the standdown in the Shuttle Program after the loss of Columbia saw the initial reliance on the Russian Soyuz to maintain an American presence on the ISS. Soyuz will continue to provide a backup role during the early phase of the Commercial Crew flights to the Station before NASA can claim confidence they have both Dragon and Starliner capability to provide all of its transportation requirements.

For Starliner, additional synergy with the Shuttle past will come via Commander Chris Fergurson, who flew with Doug Hurley during STS-135. The duo left a flag marking the Shuttle’s history and proclaimed it would be returned to Earth when domestic launch capability returned.

Colonel Hurley will gain that honor, although the ultimate success will come when Commander Ferguson also makes his return to the Station, on the first Starliner docking to the orbital outpost.

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