Crewed Variant of X-37 Space Plane Proposed

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As reported online at Space.com, the Boeing Company is already working on the CST-100 space taxi as a means of transportation to and from the International Space Station (ISS). But the aerospace firm is not content with just this simple space capsule and is looking into whether-or-not another of Boeing’s current offerings – the X-37B space plane could be modified to one day ferry crew to and from the orbiting laboratory as well.

proposed variant of the spacecraft, dubbed the X-37C, is being considered for a role that has some similarities to the cancelled X-38 Crew Return Vehicle (CRV). The announcement was made at a conference hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and reported on Space.com.

The USAF has already launched two of the X-37B Orbital Text Vehicles (OTV) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Photo Credit: ULA/Pat Corkery

The X-37B or Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) has so far been launched twice by the U.S. Air Force from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. One of the military space planes completed the craft’s inaugural mission, USA-212, on Apr. 22, 2010. The mini space plane reentered Earth’s atmosphere and conducted an autonomous landing at Vandenberg Air Force on Dec. 3, 2010.

The U.S. Air Force then went on to launch the second of the space planes on mission USA-226 on Mar. 5, 2011. With these two successful launches, the longest-duration stay on orbit by a reusable vehicle and a landing under its belt, some of the vehicle’s primary systems (guidance, navigation, thermal protection and aerodynamics among others) are now viewed as having been validated. The vehicle has performed better than expected with the turnaround time being less than predicted.

If the X-37C is produced, it will be roughly twice the size of its predecessor. The X-37B is about 29 feet long; this new version of the mini shuttle would be approximately 48 feet in length. The X-37C is estimated at being approximately 165-180 percent larger than the X-37B. This increase in the size requires a larger launch vehicle.

This larger size also highlights plans to have the spacecraft carry 5 or 6 astronauts – with room for an additional crew member that is immobilized on a stretcher. The X-38, manufactured by Scaled Composites, was designed, built and tested to serve as a lifeboat for the ISS. In case of an emergency, crew members on the ISS would have entered the CRV and returned to Earth – a role that now could possibly be filled by the X-37C. The key difference being that the CRV only reached the point of atmospheric drop tests – the X-37B has flown into space twice.

Certain elements of the X-37C proposal highlight mission aspects of the cancelled X-38 Crew Return Vehicle. Photo Credit: NASA.gov

The crewed variant of the X-37 space plane would contain a pressurized compartment where the payload is normally stored, it would have a hatch that would allow for astronauts to enter and depart the spacecraft. Another hatch would be located on the main body of the mini shuttle so as to allow access to the vehicle on the ground. The X-37C, like its smaller cousin, would be able to rendezvous, dock, reenter the atmosphere and land remotely, without the need of a pilot. Acknowledging the need for pilots to control their own craft however, the X-37C would be capable of accomplishing these space flight requirements under manual control as well.

As mentioned in the Space.com article, one of the other selling points for the X-37C is its modular nature. Different variants could be used for crewed flights or unmanned missions that could return delicate cargo from the ISS. Neither the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, nor commercially-developed capsules are considered as appropriate means of returning biological or crystal experiments to Earth due to the high rate of acceleration that these vehicles incur upon atmospheric reentry. By comparison the X-37B experiences just 1.5 “g” upon reentry.

The launch vehicle that would send the proposed X-37C to orbit would be the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. In provided images the X-37C is shown utilizing a larger version of the Atlas booster and without the protective fairing that covered the two X-37B space planes that were launched.

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser to Conduct Drop Test Next Summer

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It looks as though the efforts to get commercial space taxis off the ground – is succeeding. Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) “Dream Chaser” space plane is slated to conduct its first test flight as early as next summer. SNC is one of four companies that have had proposals selected by NASA under the Commercial Crew Development Program – 02 (CCDev2).

The test flight, what is known as a high-altitude free-flight test or “drop-test” will see Dream Chaser lifted high into the air, where the craft will then be released from its carrier aircraft and attempt an unmanned landing. During the course of this flight test program SNC will test out the space plane’s autoland and other capabilities.

The Dream Chaser space plane is derived from the HL-20 lifting body developed by NASA. Photo Credit: SNC

“Sierra Nevada Space Systems is honored to be awarded an additional $25.6 million by NASA as part of the second round of the Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev2), bringing the total award to $105.6 million for this round of the competition,” said Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada Space Systems. “As part of CCDev2, the Program has already completed four of the planned milestones, on time and on budget. The now thirteen CCDev2 milestones will culminate in a high-altitude free-flight test of our vehicle in the summer of 2012. ”

With NASA’s fleet of orbiters retired and being prepared to go on display in museums, NASA is dependent on the Russian Soyuz for access to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA currently pays Russia $63 million per seat for trips to the orbiting laboratory.

If all goes according to plan, the Dream Chaser could be one of many 'space-taxis' that would supply transportation services to the International Space Station. Image Credit: SNC

Many within both NewSpace and established space companies have stated their intent on reducing the amount of time that the U.S. is in such a position. NASA also has worked to assist companies that are working on CCDev2 to either meet or exceed their deadlines.
NASA is hopeful that these developments will allow the space agency to turn over transportation to the ISS to commercial firms by 2016.

In the case of SNC, NASA increased what the company was paid by an added $25.6 million. SNC had already been awarded $80 million as their part of the CCDev2 contract. After this boost in funding, SNC announced that the drop test would be held next summer.
The Dream Chaser design is based primarily off of the HL-20 lifting body design and is capable of carrying seven astronauts to orbit. Dream Chaser is designed to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station located in Florida atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 402.

Sierra Nevada Corporation is working steadily to test out and prove the Dream Chaser's various systems. Photo Credit: SNC

If everything goes according to how it is currently planned, the test flight will take place at either Edwards Air Force Base, located in California or White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo will carry the Dream Chaser space plane aloft for the test. Virgin Galactic, another NewSpace firm, is based in the U.S. and owned by Sir Richard Branson.

The ISS is viewed by the U.S, and the 15 other nations involved with the project as a crucial investment and having only one way to send crew to and from the ISS as being unacceptable. Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is joined by Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Dragon spacecraft, Boeing’s CST-100 and Blue Origin’s as-yet unnamed spacecraft in the CCDev2 contract.

The Dream Chaser space plane atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Image Credit: SNC

Behind the Scenes: Curiosity’s Rocket Prepared at Vertical Integration Facility

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — One of the more dramatic buildings operated by United Launch Alliance (ULA) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida is the Vertical Integration Facility or VIF as it is more commonly known. It is in this facility that expendable launch vehicles are brought, lying on their sides – and then hoisted into the vertical position for launch. The current resident in the VIF is the Atlas V 541 (AV-028) that is slated to launch the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

At the top of the 292 –foot-tall structure is a 60 ton crane that initially is used to lift the Atlas’ first stage into the vertical position. The payload, ensconced in the protective fairing, is assembled elsewhere. Once it arrives at the VIF, it is hoisted high into the air using the same crane and then mated with the top of the launch vehicle. Given the delicate nature of this operation technicians take their time in lifting the precious cargo and maneuvering it over the rocket.

The U.S. flag and the interstage adapter are seen in the image to the left. The photo to the right helps to illustrate the scale needed to assemble the Atlas V. Photo Credits: Jason Rhian

“You get the most amazing view from the top of the VIF,” said Mike Woolley of United Launch Alliance. “From this level you can clearly see not just Launch Complex 41, but a great deal of Florida’s Space Coast.”

Once the fairing and its payload have been safely affixed to the top of the rocket, the doors are opened up and the Atlas V is then rolled out to the adjacent Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41).

At the Vertical Integration Facility's fifh level, the segment of the rocket where the payload (in this case the MSL rover) is attached is the only element of the rocket that is visible. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

“Once the Atlas V is fully assembled, the completed vehicle is rolled, in the vertical, out to the launch pad.” Woolley said.

Currently on the fifth level the upper part of the Centaur, the all-important rocket that will send the rover on its way to Mars, covered in a protective layer of white plastic, is visible.

One of the easiest ways to display the size of the Atlas - is to actually break up the images. To the left is the top portion, to the right the middle (note the Aerojet Solid Rocket Motors the the right). Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Descending down the length of the Atlas V, level by level one gains an appreciation for the sheer scale of the Atlas rocket, its solid rocket motors and the attention to detail needed to launch payloads out of Earth’s gravity well.

On Level One the top of the Atlas’ Solid Rocket Motors (SRMs) produced by Aerojet are visible. At the ground floor, one has the ability to look up (somewhat, platforms and rigging block your view) the length of the rocket. On the ground level, one can plainly see that the twin RD-180 engines are Russian-made – the Cyrillic lettering still grace the engines’ nozzles.

Just inside the VIF one can look up the side of the Atlas V, even though elements of the launch vehicle are obstructed - the sight is still impressive. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

MSL is the next planetary mission on NASA’s docket, more commonly known as “Curiosity” is a nuclear-powered rover about the size of a compact automobile.

Curiosity is currently slated for a Nov. 25 launch date at 10:21 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41). Members of the media (myself included) got to see the Atlas for this launch being lifted into the air in preparation for the November launch when we were being escorted back to the NASA/LSC press site after the GRAIL launch was scrubbed (GRAIL would go on to be launched two days later).