Human Spaceflight, Planetary Missions Face Potential Cuts in Latest NASA Budget Negotiations

While 2014 budget negotiations are not finalized yet, there’s already some noise of concern in different space communities that depend on NASA. Here’s a brief roundup of some of the news lately:

Could the Cassini Saturn mission get the axe? Wired’s Adam Mann warns that NASA may not be able to fund all of its planetary science missions in the coming year. Based on a statement that Jim Green, NASA’s planetary science director, made to an agency advisory council earlier this month, Mann narrows in on the Curiosity and Cassini missions as the big flagship missions that are requiring the most in terms of resources. Cassini is functioning perfectly and providing reams of data from Saturn and its moons, causing concern from planetary scientists about losing it early.

Only one commercial crew partner? NASA issued a cautious news release this week saying it is prepared to launch Americans from their own soil in 2017, “subject to the availability of adequate funding.” The agency is now moving into a new phase of its commercial crew program called Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap), saying it is prepared to “award one or more CCtCap contracts no later than September 2014.” That means that the three companies currently funded — Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX — may face stiff competition for more money.

New report suggesting stopping NASA’s human spaceflight program: Before reading any further, do not jump to conclusions — making recommendations like this is a common practice by the Congressional Budget Office, which looks at all possibilities as it presents options for spending. Still, Space Politics’ Jeff Foust presents the report and generates some interesting comments after his story about the value of human spaceflight. For context, NASA and its international agency partners will need to make a decision fairly soon about continuing space station operations past 2020, so it’s possible the human spaceflight program could change.

What do you think of these proposals? Let us know in the comments.

NASA Tanks: Not Just Heavy Metal Any More

NASA’s future in fuels will see less heavy metal. Literally.

The agency just finished testing on a composite propellant tank that holds cryogenics, or super-chilled gases that are commonly used as rocket fuel (such as for the space shuttle). The agency brought the test tank down to -423 degrees Fahrenheit, put it through a few cycles and ramped up the internal pressure.

Composites are lighter material than the traditional metals that are used to hold these gases. NASA is excitedly throwing out descriptors such as “game-changing” when it talks about this, and has some reason to do so: composites are lighter than metals.

The light weight of composite tanks makes them lighter to lift off the ground. This reduces the costs of launch, which in turn reduces the overall cost of a mission. That will make penny-counters at the agency happier as the agency battles for funding dollars in fiscal 2014 and beyond.

The first of these tanks is likely to be used in the upper stage of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, which is under development right now. That’s the rocket that’s supposed to send the Orion spacecraft (aiming for a 2014 test flight) into space in the latter years of this decade.

“The tank manufacturing process represents a number of industry breakthroughs, including automated fiber placement of oven-cured materials, fiber placement of an all-composite tank wall design that is leak-tight, and a tooling approach that eliminates heavy joints,” stated Dan Rivera, the Boeing cryogenic tank program manager at Marshall.

Boeing and NASA are now working on another composite tank that should be tested at Marshall later in 2013.

Source: NASA

Private Test Pilots to Fly 1st Commercial Crewed Space Flights for NASA

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Image Caption: Dream Chaser commercial crew vehicle built by Sierra Nevada Corp docks at ISS

Commercial test pilots, not NASA astronauts, will fly the first crewed missions that NASA hopes will at last restore America’s capability to blast humans to Earth orbit from American soil – perhaps as early as 2015 – which was totally lost following the forced shuttle shutdown.

At a news briefing this week, NASA managers at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) said the agency is implementing a new way of doing business in human spaceflight and purposely wants private companies to assume the flight risk first with their crews before exposing NASA crews as a revolutionary new flight requirement. Both NASA and the companies strongly emphasized that there will be no shortcuts to flying safe.

A trio of American aerospace firms – Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp – are leading the charge to develop and launch the new commercially built human-rated spacecraft that will launch Americans to LEO atop American rockets from American bases.

The goal is to ensure the nation has safe, reliable and affordable crew transportation systems for low-Earth orbit (LEO) and International Space Station (ISS) missions around the middle of this decade.

The test launch schedule hinges completely on scarce Federal dollars from NASA for which there is no guarantee in the current tough fiscal environment.

The three companies are working with NASA in a public-private partnership using a combination of NASA seed money and company funds. Each company was awarded contracts under NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Initiative, or CCiCap, program, the third in a series of contracts aimed at kick starting the development of the so-called private sector ‘space taxis’ to fly astronauts to and from the ISS.

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Caption: Boeing CST-100 crew vehicle docks at the ISS

The combined value of NASA’s Phase 1 CCiCap contracts is about $1.1 Billion and runs through March 2014 said Ed Mango, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager. Phase 2 contract awards will follow and eventually lead to the actual flight units after a down selection to one or more of the companies, depending on NASA’s approved budget.

Since the premature retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet in 2011, US astronauts have been 100% reliant on the Russians to hitch a ride to the ISS – at a price tag of over $60 Million per seat. This is taking place while American aerospace workers sit on the unemployment line and American expertise and billions of dollars of hi-tech space hardware rots away or sits idly by with each passing day.

Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp seek to go where no private company has gone before – to low Earth orbit with their private sector manned spacecraft. And representatives from all three told reporters they are all eager to move forward.

All three commercial vehicles – the Boeing CST-100; SpaceX Dragon and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser – are designed to carry a crew of up to 7 astronauts and remain docked at the ISS for more than 6 months.

“For well over a year now, since Atlantis [flew the last space shuttle mission], the United States of America no longer has the capability to launch people into space. And that’s something that we are not happy about,” said Garrett Reisman, a former space shuttle astronaut who is now the SpaceX Commercial Crew project manager leading their development effort. “We’re very proud to be part of the group that’s going to do something about that and get Americans back into space.”

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Caption: Blastoff of SpaceX Cargo Dragon atop Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral, Florida on May, 22, 2012, bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer

“We are the emotional successors to the shuttle,” said Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada Corp. vice president and SNC Space Systems chairman. “Our target was to repatriate that industry back to the United States, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Sierra Nevada is developing the winged Dream Chaser, a mini-shuttle that launches atop an Atlas V rocket and lands on a runway like the shuttle. Boeing and SpaceX are building capsules that will launch atop Atlas V and Falcon 9 rockets, respectively, and then land by parachute like the Russian Soyuz capsule.

SpaceX appears to be leading the pack using a man-rated version of their Dragon capsule which has already docked twice to the ISS on critical cargo delivery missions during 2012. From the start, the SpaceX Dragon was built to meet the specification ratings requirements for a human crew.

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Caption: Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station on May 25, 2012 for grapple and berthing . Photo: NASA

Reisman said the first manned Dragon test flight with SpaceX test pilots could be launched in mid 2015. A flight to the ISS could take place by late 2015. Leading up to that in April 2014, SpaceX is planning to carry out an unmanned in-flight abort test to simulate and test a worst case scenario “at the worst possible moment.”

Boeing is aiming for an initial three day orbital test flight of their CST-100 capsule during 2016, said John Mulholland, the Boeing Commercial Programs Space Exploration vice president and program manager. Mulholland added that Chris Ferguson, the commander of the final shuttle flight by Atlantis, is leading the flight test effort.

Boeing has leased one of NASA’s Orbiter Processing Facility hangers (OPF-3) at KSC. Mulholland told me that Boeing will ‘cut metal’ soon. “Our first piece of flight design hardware will be delivered to KSC and OPF-3 within 5 months.”

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Caption: Boeing CST-100 capsule mock-up, interior view. Credit: Ken Kremer

Sierra Nevada plans to start atmospheric drop tests of an engineering test article of the Dream Chaser from a carrier aircraft in the next few months in an autonomous mode. The test article is a full sized vehicle.

“It’s not outfitted for orbital flight; it is outfitted for atmospheric flight tests,” Sirangelo told me. “The best analogy is it’s very similar to what NASA did in the shuttle program with the Enterprise, creating a vehicle that would allow it to do significant flights whose design then would filter into the final vehicle for orbital flight.”

Now to the issue of using commercial space test pilots in place of NASA astronauts on the initial test flights.

At the briefing, Reisman stated, “We were told that because this would be part of the development and prior to final certification that we were not allowed, legally, to use NASA astronauts to be part of that test pilot crew.”

So I asked NASA’s Ed Mango, “Why are NASA astronauts not allowed on the initial commercial test flights?”

Mango replied that NASA wants to implement the model adopted by the military wherein the commercial company assumes the initial risk before handing the airplanes to the government.

“We would like them to get to a point where they’re ready to put their crew on their vehicle at their risk,” said Mango. “And so it changes the dynamic a little bit. Normally under a contract, the contractor comes forward and says he’s ready to go fly but it’s a NASA individual that’s going to sit on the rocket, so it becomes a NASA risk.

“What we did is we flipped it around under iCAP. It’s not what we’re going to do long term under phase two, but we flipped it around under iCAP and said we want to know when you’re ready to fly your crew and put your people at risk. And that then becomes something that we’re able to evaluate.”

“In the end all our partners want to fly safe. They’re not going to take any shortcuts on flying safe,” he elaborated. “All of us have the same initiative and it doesn’t matter who’s sitting on top of the vehicle. It’s a person, and that person needs to fly safely and get back home to their families. That’s the mission of all our folks and our partners – to go back home and see their family.”

Given the nations fiscal difficulties and lack of bipartisan cooperation there is no guarantee that NASA will receive the budget it needs to keep the commercial crew program on track.

Indeed, the Obama Administrations budget request for commercial crew has been repeatedly slashed by the US Congress to only half the request in the past two years. These huge funding cuts have already forced a multi-year delay in the inaugural test flights and increased the time span that the US has no choice but to pay Russia to launch US astronauts to the ISS.

“The budget is going to be an extremely challenging topic, not only for this program but for all NASA programs,” said Phil McAlister, NASA Commercial Spaceflight Development director.

NASA is pursuing a dual track approach in reviving NASA’s human spaceflight program. The much larger Orion crew capsule is simultaneously being developed to launch atop the new SLS super rocket and carry astronauts back to the Moon by 2021 and then farther into deep space to Asteroids and one day hopefully Mars.

Ken Kremer

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Caption: Dream Chaser awaits launch atop Atlas V rocket

NASA Announces Winners in Commercial Crew Funding; Which Company Will Get to Space First?

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NASA announced today the winners of the third round of commercial crew development funding, called the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap). This will ultimately allow commercial space companies to be able to provide commercial human spaceflight services for both NASA and other commercial customers. The winners are SpaceX ($440 million), Boeing ($460 million) and Sierra Nevada Corporation ($212.5 million). NASA said these awards will enable a launch of astronauts from U.S. soil in the next five years.

NASA’s Ed Mango said that the differences in the amount each company received was not a difference of two companies getting “full” awards and one getting a half award, but each company negotiated how much work they could get done in the 21-month period that this award covers.

NASA wants to have at least one commercial company able to bring astronauts to and from the International Space Station by 2017, but the three winning companies said they can either meet or beat that deadline, with optimal funding.

During conference calls with reporters, SpaceX’s Elon Musk said his company is shooting for a demonstration flight in mid-2015, with the anticipated Boeing says it can do crewed test flight in late 2016, assuming optimal funding, and Sierra Nevada said they will likely start their operations in 2016 or 2017.

Musk said the cost of getting to first crewed SpaceX flight to ISS would be about $1 billion. The first orbital demo crewed flight probably wouldn’t go to the space station, but would on a subsequent flight, about a year later.

SpaceX is well ahead of the other two companies because of their work – and success – with the unmanned Dragon capsule, which traveled to and from the ISS earlier this year, and was the first commercial spacecraft to be berthed to the Station. For the most part, SpaceX has paid their own way during the development of Dragon and their crewed version, the 7-passenger DragonRider, spending about $300 million of their own money in addition to about $75 million from NASA.

The plans for DragonRider have it making its return landing in the ocean, but SpaceX has completed the development of the SuperDraco thruster, which will mainly be used as a launch abort system but also allow for powered landings on land.

Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, also capable of carrying a crew of seven, has met many milestones, such as drop tests and parachute tests. Like Dragon, the spacecraft will initially land in the ocean, but the company hopes to allow for land-based landings later on. It will launch on an Atlas V rocket.

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft, perhaps the most fascinating of the trio of commercial spacecraft, looks like a mini-space shuttle, and comes from the line of NASA experimental vehicles, the HL-20. It can serve as both a transport vehicle and a rescue vehicle from the ISS, and has the capability to land at almost any commercial airport within six hours of leaving the ISS. Dream Chaser will also launch on an Atlas V.

Caption: NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Ed Mango discusses the agency’s new Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) partnerships from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Kennedy’s Director Bob Cabana, left, and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden also spoke about the CCiCap initiative during Friday’s news conference. Image credit: NASA

“Today, we are announcing another critical step toward launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on space systems built by American companies,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We have selected three companies that will help keep us on track to end the outsourcing of human spaceflight and create high-paying jobs in Florida and elsewhere across the country.”

The Commercial Crew Program is a competitive program where commercial companies develop and build vehicles to meet NASA’s requirements, and when fixed milestones are met, NASA provides funding.

NASA says the objective of the CCP is to facilitate the development of a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station and low Earth orbit.

“For 50 years American industry has helped NASA push boundaries, enabling us to live, work and learn in the unique environment of microgravity and low Earth orbit,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “The benefits to humanity from these endeavors are incalculable. We’re counting on the creativity of industry to provide the next generation of transportation to low Earth orbit and expand human presence, making space accessible and open for business.”

Of course, NASA is also working to develop the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and the Space Launch System (SLS), a crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket to provide transportation to distant destinations like the Moon, asteroids or ultimately Mars.

For more details on the program see: http://www.nasa.gov/offices/c3po/home/

Boeing To Use Shuttle Hangar for CST-100 Space Taxi

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – NASA hosted an event on Monday, Oct. 31, at 10 a.m. EDT at Kennedy Space Center’s Orbiter Processing Facility-3 (OPF-3) to announce a new partnership between NASA, Space Florida and Boeing. Space Florida in turn will lease OPF-3 to Boeing. Under the terms of this arrangement, Boeing will use OPF-3 to manufacture and test Boeing’s “space taxi” the CST-100.

Boeing will use OPF-3 as the firm’s commercial crew program office. The OPF, essentially a hangar, will be converted to construct Boeing’s CST-100 space capsule, which is currently being developed to deliver astronauts to low-Earth-orbit (LEO).

In the past Boeing has issued imagery that displayed its CST-100 launching from a variety of different launch vehicles which call Florida's Space Coast their home. Photo Credit: Boeing

This new partnership was developed following a Notice of Availability that the space agency issued at the beginning of this year. The notice was used to identify interest from industry for space processing and support facilities at Kennedy. With NASA’s fleet of orbiters being decommissioned, NASA was seeking ways to effectively use its existing facilities.

It is hoped that this, and similar partnerships will help create jobs in the region as well as to help the U.S. regain leadership in the global space economy.

Boeing's CST-100 is called a "space-taxi" and is being designed to carry both crew and cargo to both the International Space Station as well and other low-Earth-orbit destnations. Image Credit: Boeing

The CST-100 is currently proposed as a reusable spacecraft that is comprised of two parts – a crew module and service module. It is designed to house up to seven astronauts, but it can also be used to ferry both people and cargo to orbit.

With the space shuttle fleet retired, NASA is completely reliant on Russia for access to the International Space Station. Russia charges the space agency about $63 million a seat on its Soyuz spacecraft.

“Only Congress can determine when we will stop the investment of our nation’s tax dollars into the purchase of continued space transportation services from the Russians – and invest instead in the U.S. work force and commercial industry capabilities,” said Space Florida’s President Frank DiBello.

During the final launch of the shuttle era, Boeing had both a mock-up as well as this test article on display. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

NASA has worked to keep the public apprised about its efforts to open its doors to private space companies. The space agency held press conferences to announce both the Space Act Agreement (SAA) that NASA had entered into with Alliant Techsystems (ATK) and EADS Astrium concerning the Liberty launch vehicle, as well as the release of the design of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket (which was announced on the following day).

“Thanks so much John and John, I love what you have done with the place!” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver referring to OPF-3.

The CST-100 has been proposed as a means of transportation to other future destinations in low-Earth-orbit such as one of the inflatable space station's currently under development by Bigelow Aerospace. Image Credit: Boeing

Space Florida is the organization that works to maintain and cultivate the aerospace industry within the State of Florida. The purpose of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is to develop U.S. commercial crew space flight capabilities. It is hoped that they will one day allow the U.S. to achieve reliable, safe and cheap access not to just the space station – but other destinations in LEO as well.

“If we’re going to find a way to fund exploration beyond the vicinity of Earth, particularly in today’s fiscally-constrained environment – we’ve got to find a way to do the job of transporting crew to the International Space Station in a more affordable manner,” said Boeing’s John Elbon. “That’s one of the primary purposes of the commercial crew program – to provide affordable access to low-Earth-orbit so that we can use the International Space Station as the great laboratory that it is.”

Through an agreement with Space Florida, NASA will lease Orbiter Processing Facility-3 (OPF-3) to Boeing for its CST-100 space taxi. It is hoped that this and efforts like this one will eventually reduce the cost of sending crews to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

Commercial Crew Assessments Carry On with CST-100 Wind Tunnel Tests

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Boeing recently began wind tunnel testing on its CST-100 (Crew Space Transport) capsule, designed to service destinations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), locations like the ISS and Bigelow Space Stations. These tests have been on going since Sept. 17th of this year, collecting data on “20 different positions to mimic the different phases of an aborted landing”, Boeing said in a press release. These tests may lead to extensive changes and are critical to the craft’s safety.

The tests will move onto analyze ”approaches to abort before liftoff, abort after separation from the rocket, abort in orbit, etc” said Paula Korn, media contact for space exploration at Boeing, in an email to Universe Today. All these abort modes place high aerodynamic stress on the capsule and each abort mode has it own stresses. Each of the modes must be balanced for an ideal space system.

“Each of these approaches involves various aspects of problem solving and design solutions and are based on lessons learned from our 50 years of human spaceflight, starting with the early Mercury missions,” Korn said. “We are also integrating innovative, new design aspects to optimize safety, reliability and affordability objectives”.

An engineering view of the model - Credit: Boeing
Rear View of the Wind Tunnel Model - Credit: Boeing

The test platform was a 1/14th scale representation of the crew module and service module – the cone that houses the crew connected the uninhabited cylinder that houses the engines and other support systems. Jutting out of the model of the service module there are four thruster doghouses in addition to one umbilical cover for the crew and service modules. Poking out of the back of the model are four LAS (Launch Abort System) thrusters.

This extensive detail in the model combined with “hundreds of pinhole-sized sensors” give Boeing engineers precise views of the aerodynamics of the CST-100. “As engineers, we like data and numbers, and you can take all of this and make something meaningful out of it,” said Boeing engineer Dustin Choe. “We can reduce it down and provide a clearer picture of what we will experience in flight.” Based on this data there will be further changes to the spacecraft.

The CST-100's Flight Path - Credit: Boeing

There are more tests in store for Boeing’s answer to NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. Boeing and Bigelow have already “dropped a mock capsule off a moving truck,” Boeing said in the press release, “to test the external airbags the real spacecraft would deploy to cushion a landing on Earth.”. “In the first quarter 2012,” Korn confirmed that “we are planning to perform parachute drop tests”.

Boeing to Offer Commercial Flights to Space

The aerospace company Boeing is developing a crew transportation vehicle and today announced an agreement with the space marketing company Space Adventures to offer commercial passenger seats on the Boeing Crew Space Transportation-100 (CST-100) spacecraft, which is being built to with the capability to fly to the International Space Station as well as other future low Earth orbit private space stations. The spacecraft will be able to carry seven people, and is being designed to fly on multiple launch vehicles. It is expected to be operational by 2015.
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Successful Test of Air-Breathing Scramjet Engine

Boeing and the US Air Force tested a supersonic combustion ramjet engine on May 26 with the longest hypersonic flight in history. The X-51A WaveRider was dropped from a B-52 and flew for nearly three and a half minutes, flying at five times the speed of sound – Mach 5. The unmanned aerial vehicle was tested off the southern California coast around 10 a.m. on May 26, and it flew autonomously for more than 200 seconds, but then something then occurred that caused the vehicle to lose acceleration. But the teams who worked on the project are still calling the test a success.
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