NASA Receives Significant Budget Boost for Fiscal Year 2016

NASA has just received a significant boost in the agency’s current budget after both chambers of Congress passed the $1.1 Trillion 2016 omnibus spending bill this morning, Friday, Dec. 18, which funds the US government through the remainder of Fiscal Year 2016.

As part of the omnibus bill, NASA’s approved budget amounts to nearly $19.3 Billion – an outstandingly magnificent result and a remarkable turnaround to some long awaited good news from the decidedly negative outlook earlier this year. Continue reading “NASA Receives Significant Budget Boost for Fiscal Year 2016”

NASA Orders First Commercial Crew Mission to Space Station from SpaceX

SpaceX Crew Dragon will blast off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida  for missions to the International Space Station. Pad 39A is  undergoing modifications by SpaceX to adapt it to the needs of the company's Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which are slated to lift off from the historic pad in the near future. A horizontal integration facility (right) has been constructed near the perimeter of the pad where rockets will be processed for launch prior of rolling out to the top of the pad structure for liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
SpaceX Crew Dragon will blast off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for missions to the International Space Station. Pad 39A is undergoing modifications by SpaceX to adapt it to the needs of the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which are slated to lift off from the historic pad in the near future. A horizontal integration facility (right) has been constructed near the perimeter of the pad where rockets will be processed for launch prior of rolling out to the top of the pad structure for liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Restoring America’s ability to once again launch US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) from US soil on US rockets took another significant step forward when NASA ordered the first the agency’s first commercial crew rotation mission from the Hawthorne, California based-company SpaceX. NASA and SpaceX hope that the blastoff with a crew of up to four astronauts will take place by late 2017.

The new Nov. 20 award from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) office to launch the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule follows up on an earlier commercial crew rotation mission award this past May to the Boeing Company of Houston to launch its CST-100 Starliner astronaut crew capsule to the ISS.

Since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters in Continue reading “NASA Orders First Commercial Crew Mission to Space Station from SpaceX”

Construction of Crew Access Tower Starts at Atlas V Pad for Boeing ‘Starliner’ Taxi to ISS

The first tier of seven tiers for Crew Access Tower is moved from its construction yard to Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sept 9, 2015. The tower will provide access at the pad for astronauts and ground support teams to the Boeing CST-100 Starliner launching atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Photo credit: NASA/Dmitrios Gerondidakis
Story/photos updated[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Restoring America’s human path back to space from US soil kicks into high gear at last as construction starts on erecting the new crew access tower on the Atlas V launch pad that will soon propel Americans astronauts riding aboard the commercially developed Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ taxi to the Earth-orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

The last hurdle to begin stacking the crew access tower at the United Launch Alliance Atlas V complex-41 launch pad on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida was cleared with the magnificent predawn blastoff of the U.S. Navy’s MUOS-4 communications satellite on Sept. 2 – following a two day weather delay due to Tropical Storm Erika.

“Everything is on schedule,” Howard Biegler, ULA’s Human Launch Services Lead, told Universe Today during an exclusive interview. “The new 200-foot-tall tower structure goes up rather quickly at launch pad 41.”

The access tower essentially functions as the astronauts walkway to the stars.

“We start stacking the crew access tower [CAT] after the MUOS-4 launch and prior to the next launch after that of Morelos-3,” Beigler said in a wide ranging interview describing the intricately planned pad modifications and tower construction at the Atlas V Space Launch Complex 41 facility at Cape Canaveral.

Depending on the always tricky weather at the Cape, more than half the tower should be “installed prior to MORELOS-3’s launch on Oct. 2. The balance of the CAT will take form after the launch.”

The first tier of the new Crew Access Tower for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner arrives at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.   The tower will provide access at the pad for astronauts and ground support teams  to the Boeing CST-100 Starliner launching atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.   Photo credit: NASA/Dmitrios Gerondidakis
The first tier of the new Crew Access Tower for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner arrives at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sept 9, 2015. The tower will provide access at the pad for astronauts and ground support teams to the Boeing CST-100 Starliner launching atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Photo credit: NASA/Dmitrios Gerondidakis

The crew access tower is a critical space infrastructure element and absolutely essential for getting Americans back to space on American rockets for the first time since NASA’s shuttles were retired in 2011. That action forced our total dependence on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronaut rides to the space station.

Boeing was awarded a $4.2 Billion contract in September 2014 by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to complete development and manufacture of the CST-100 space taxi under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative. SpaceX also received a NASA award worth $2.6 Billion to build the Crew Dragon spacecraft for launch atop the firms man-rated Falcon 9 rocket.

Starliner is a key part of NASA’s overarching strategy to send Humans on a “Journey to Mars” in the 2030s.

The tower is of modular design for ease of assembly at the always busy Atlas launch pad.

“The crew tower is comprised of seven major tiers, or segments,” Beigler explained. “The building of the tiers went right on schedule. Each tier is about 20 feet square and 28 feet tall.”

Five of the seven tiers will be installed ahead of the next Atlas launch in early October, depending on the weather which has been difficult at the Cape.

“Our plan is to get 5 tiers and a temporary roof installed prior to MORELOS-3’s launch on October 2.”

“We have been hit hard with weather and are hopeful we can gain some schedule through the weekend. The balance of the CAT will take form after the 10/2 launch with the 7th tier planned to go up on 10/13 and roof on 10/15,” Biegler explained.

The first tier of the new Crew Access Tower for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner is installed at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sept 9, 2015 where United Launch Alliance  Atlas V rockets will lift Boeing Starliners into orbit.  Photo credit: NASA/Dmitrios Gerondidakis
The first tier of the new Crew Access Tower for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner is installed at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida where United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets will lift Boeing Starliners into orbit. Photo credit: NASA/Dmitrios Gerondidakis

The newly named ‘Starliner’ space taxi will launch atop a newly human-rated Atlas V booster as soon as mid-2017, say NASA, ULA and Boeing officials.

But before astronauts can even climb aboard Starliner atop the Atlas rocket, ULA and Boeing first had to design, build and install a brand new tower providing access to the capsule for the crews and technicians.

Pad 41 is currently a “clean pad” with no gantry and no walkway to ‘Starliner’ because the Atlas V has only been used for unmanned missions to date.

The CST-100 ‘Starliner’ is at the forefront of ushering in the new commercial era of space flight and will completely revolutionize how we access, explore and exploit space for the benefit of all mankind.

This is the first new Crew Access Tower to be built at the Cape in decades, going back to NASA’s heyday and the Apollo moon landing era.

The tier segments were assembled about four miles down the road at the Atlas Space Operations Center on Cape Canaveral – so as not to disrupt the chock full manifest of Atlas rockets launching on a breakneck schedule for the NASA, military and commercial customers who ultimately pay the bills to keep ULA afloat and launch groundbreaking science probes and the most critical national security payloads vital to national defense.

“Each segment was outfitted with additional steel work, as well as electrical, plumbing and the staircase. Then they will be transported 3.9 miles out to the pad, one at a time on a gold hoffer and then we start erecting.”

The first two tiers were just transported out to pad 41. Installation and stacking of one tier on top of another starts in a few days.

Artist’s concept of Boeing’s CST-100 space taxi atop a human rated ULA Atlas-V rocket showing new crew access tower and arm at Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: ULA/Boeing
Artist’s concept of Boeing’s CST-100 space taxi atop a human rated ULA Atlas-V rocket showing new crew access tower and arm at Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: ULA/Boeing

“We are very pleased with the progress so far,” Biegler told me. “Everything is on schedule and has gone remarkably well so far. No safety or workmanship issues. It’s all gone very well.”

“The first tier is obviously the most critical [and will take a bit longer than the others to insure that everything is being done correctly]. It has to be aligned precisely over the anchor bolts on the foundation at the pad. Then it gets bolted in place.”

“After that they can be installed every couple of days, maybe every three days or so. The pieces of the tower will go up quickly.”

Artist’s concept of Boeing’s CST-100 space taxi atop a human rated ULA Atlas-V rocket showing new crew access tower and arm. Credit: ULA/Boeing
Artist’s concept of Boeing’s CST-100 space taxi atop a human rated ULA Atlas-V rocket showing new crew access tower and arm. Credit: ULA/Boeing
The steel tiers and tower are being built by Hensel Phelps under contract to ULA.

“Construction by the Hensel Phelps team started in January 2015,” Biegler said.

Erecting the entire tower is the next step. After stacking the tiers is fully completed later this year then comes structure, testing and calibration work over the next year.

“After tower buildup comes extensive work to outfit the tower with over 400 pieces of outboard steel that have to be installed. That takes much longer,” Biegler said.

“Designed with modern data systems, communications and power networks integrated and protected from blast and vibration, plus an elevator, the Crew Access Tower has been built with several features only a fully suited astronaut could appreciate, such as wider walkways, snag-free railings and corners that are easy to navigate without running into someone,” according to NASA officials.

Just like the shuttle, “the tower will also be equipped with slide wire baskets for emergency evacuation to a staged blast-resistant vehicle.”

“At the very top is the area that protects the access arm and provides the exit location for the emergency egress system. It will all be stick built from steel out at the pad,” Biegler elaborated.

The access arm with the walkway that astronauts will traverse to the Starliner capsule is also under construction. It is about 180 feet above ground.

Astronauts will ride an elevator up the tower to the access arm, and walk through it to the white room at the end to board the Starliner capsule.

“The arm along with the white room and torque tube are being fabricated in Florida. It will all be delivered to the pad sometime around next June [2016],” Biegler stated.

“We built a test stand tower for the access arm at our Oak Hill facility to facilitate the installation process. We mount the arm and the hydraulic drive system and then run it through its paces prior to its delivery to the pad.”

“The access arm – including the torque tube out to the end – is just over 40 feet in length.”

“We will integrate it off line because we don’t have a lot of time to troubleshoot out at the pad. So we will hook up all its drive systems and electronics on the test structure stand.”

“Then we will spend about 3 months testing it and verifying that everything is right. We’ll use laser lining to know it all precisely where the arm is. So that when we bring it out to the pad we will know where it is to within fractions of an inch. Obviously there will be some minor adjustments up and down.”

“That way in the end we will know that everything in the arm and the hydraulic drive system are working within our design specs.”

When the arm is finally installed on the crew access tower it will be complete, with the white room and environmental seal already attached.

“It will stow under the crew access tower, which is located west and north of the launch vehicle. The arm will swing out about 120 degrees to the crew module to gain access and was strategically picked to best fit the features and foundation at the existing pad structure.”

Tower construction takes place in between Atlas launches and pauses in the days prior to launches. For example the construction team will stand down briefly just ahead of the next Atlas V launch currently slated for Oct. 2 with the Mexican governments Morelos-3 communications satellite.

MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Sept. 2, 2015 at 5:59 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Crew Access Tower is now being erected at Pad 41 following MUOS-4 blastoff here. MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Sept. 2, 2015 at 5:59 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Starliners’ actual launch date totally depends on whether the US Congress provides full funding for NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP).

Thus far the Congress has totally failed at providing the requested CCP budget to adequately fund the program – already causing a 2 year delay of the first flight from 2015 to 2017.

Boeing is making great progress on manufacturing the first CST-100 Starliner.

Barely a week ago, Boeing staged the official ‘Grand Opening’ ceremony for the craft’s manufacturing facility held at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday, Sept 4. 2015 – attended by Universe Today as I reported here.

ULA has also already started assembly of the first two Atlas V rockets designated for Starliner at their rocket factory in Decatur, Alabama.

Read my earlier exclusive, in depth one-on-one interviews with Chris Ferguson – America’s last shuttle commander, who now leads Boeings’ CST-100 program; here and here.

First view of the Boeing CST-100 'Starliner' crewed space taxi at the Sept. 4, 2015 Grand Opening ceremony held in the totally refurbished C3PF manufacturing facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. These are the upper and lower segments of the first Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
First view of the Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crewed space taxi at the Sept. 4, 2015 Grand Opening ceremony held in the totally refurbished C3PF manufacturing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. These are the upper and lower segments of the first Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Boeing ‘Starliner’ Crew Spaceship; America’s Next Ride to Space Takes Shape

First view of the Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crewed space taxi at the Sept. 4, 2015 Grand Opening ceremony held in the totally refurbished C3PF manufacturing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. These are the upper and lower segments of the first Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
Story/photos updated[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – ‘Starliner’ is the new name of America’s next spaceship destined to launch our astronauts to orbit. The new commercial craft from Boeing will restore America’s capability to launch American astronauts from American soil to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2017 – and the magnificent looking first capsule is already taking shape!

Built by The Boeing Company, ‘Starliner’ was officially announced by Boeing and NASA as the new name of the company’s CST-100 commercial crew transportation spacecraft during the Grand Opening event for the craft’s manufacturing facility held at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday, Sept 4. 2015 and attended by Universe Today.

‘Starliner’ counts as history’s first privately developed ‘Space Taxi’ to carry humans to space – along with the Crew Dragon being simultaneously developed by SpaceX.

“Please welcome the CST-100 Starliner,” announced Chris Ferguson, the former shuttle commander who now is deputy manager of operations for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, at the Grand Opening event hosting numerous dignitaries.

The CST-100 ‘Starliner’ is at the forefront of ushering in the new commercial era of space flight and will completely revolutionize how we access, explore and exploit space for the benefit of all mankind.

Starliner will be mostly automated for ease of operation and is capable of transporting astronaut crews of four or more to low Earth orbit and the ISS as soon as mid 2017 if all goes well and Congress approves the required funding.

“One hundred years ago we were on the dawn of the commercial aviation era and today, with the help of NASA, we’re on the dawn of a new commercial space era,” said Boeing’s John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Space Exploration.

“It’s been such a pleasure to work hand-in-hand with NASA on this commercial crew development, and when we look back 100 years from this point, I’m really excited about what we will have discovered.”

Boeing ‘Starliner’ commercial crew space taxi manufacturing facility marks Grand Opening at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept 4. 2015.   Exterior view depicting newly installed mural for the Boeing Company’s newly named CST-100 ‘Starliner’ commercial crew transportation spacecraft on the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
Boeing ‘Starliner’ commercial crew space taxi manufacturing facility marks Grand Opening at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept 4. 2015. Exterior view depicting newly installed mural for the Boeing Company’s newly named CST-100 ‘Starliner’ commercial crew transportation spacecraft on the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

The CST-100 ‘Starliner’ will be produced in Boeing’s newly revamped manufacturing facility dubbed the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) on site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The CC3P building was previously known as Orbiter Processing Facility-2 (OPF-3) and utilized by NASA to process the agency’s space shuttle orbiters between crewed flights during the three decade long Space Shuttle program.

“When Boeing was looking for the prime location for its program headquarters, we knew Florida had a lot to offer from the infrastructure to the supplier base to the skilled work force,” said Chris Ferguson.

Starliner will launch on an Atlas V from pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It has the capability to dock at the ISS within 24 hours. It can stay docked at the station for 6 months.”

Over the past few years, the historic facility has been completely renovated, upgraded and transformed into a state of the art manufacturing site for Boeing’s commercial CST-100 Starliner.

First view of upper half of the Boeing CST-100 '?Starliner?' crewed space taxi unveiled at the Sept. 4, 2015 Grand Opening ceremony held in the totally refurbished C3PF manufacturing facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. This will be part of the first Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
First view of upper half of the Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crewed space taxi unveiled at the Sept. 4, 2015 Grand Opening ceremony held in the totally refurbished C3PF manufacturing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. This will be part of the first Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

Boeing was awarded a $4.2 Billion contract in September 2014 by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to complete development and manufacture of the CST-100 space taxi under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

It is also a key part of NASA’s overarching strategy to send Humans on a “Journey to Mars” in the 2030s.

“Commercial crew is an essential component of our journey to Mars, and in 35 states, 350 American companies are working to make it possible for the greatest country on Earth to once again launch our own astronauts into space,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “That’s some impressive investment.”

Crew access tunnel and seal for Boeing CST-100 Starliner that attaches to upper dome of the crew module for the Structural Test Article being manufactured at  the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
Crew access tunnel and hatch for Boeing CST-100 Starliner that attaches to upper dome of the crew module for the Structural Test Article being manufactured at the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

The commercial crew program is designed to return human spaceflight launches to the United States and end our sole source reliance on Russia and the Soyuz capsule for all manned flights to the ISS and crew rotation missions.

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s shuttle orbiters in 2011, US astronauts have been totally dependent on the Russians for trips to space and back.

SpaceX also received a NASA award worth $2.6 Billion to build the Crew Dragon spacecraft for launch atop the firms man-rated Falcon 9 rocket.

Final assembly of both half’s of Starliner will take place in the C3PF – namely the crew command module and the service module.

Boeing is already building the first version of Starliner known as the Structural Test Article (STA) . The STA will be used for extensive prelaunch testing and evaluation to ensure it will be ready and robust and capable of safely launches humans to orbit on a very cost effective basis.

The Starliner STA is rapidly taking shape. The first components have been built and were on display at the C3PF Grand Opening eventy of Sept. 4. They are comprised of the upper and lower halves of the crew command module, the crew access tunnel and adapter.

The shell of Starliner’s first service module was also on display.

“The STA will be completed in early 2016,” said John Mulholland Boeing Vice President, Commercial Programs, at the event.

“Then we start assembly of the Qualification Test Article.”

I asked Mulholland to describe the currently planned sequence of Starliner’s initial uncrewed and crewed flights.

“The first uncrewed flight is expected to occur in May 2017. Then comes the Pad Abort Test in August 2017. The first crewed flight is set for September 2017. The first contracted regular service flight (PCM-1) is set for December 2017,” Mulholland told me.

“It’s all very exciting.”

Boeing CST-100 crew capsule will carry five person crews to the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing CST-100 crew capsule will carry five person crews to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“Kennedy Space Center has transitioned more than 50 facilities for commercial use. We have made improvements and upgrades to well-known Kennedy workhorses such as the Vehicle Assembly Building, mobile launcher, crawler–transporter and Launch Pad 39B in support of Orion, the SLS and Advanced Exploration Systems,” said Robert Cabana, Kennedy’s center director.

“I am proud of our success in transforming Kennedy Space Center to a 21st century, multi-user spaceport that is now capable of supporting the launch of all sizes and classes of vehicles, including horizontal launches from the Shuttle Landing Facility, and spacecraft processing and landing.”

Boeing and NASA managers pose with the Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew module  being assembled into the Structural Test Article at company’s C3PF facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  From left are John Mulholland, Boeing Vice President Commercial Programs;  Chris Ferguson, former shuttle commander now Boeing deputy manager Commercial Crew Program; John Elbon, Boeing vice president and general manager of Space Exploration; and Robert Cabana, former shuttle commander and now Director NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, on Sept. 4, 2015.
Boeing and NASA managers pose with the Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew module being assembled into the Structural Test Article at company’s C3PF facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. From left are John Mulholland, Boeing Vice President Commercial Programs; Chris Ferguson, former shuttle commander now Boeing deputy manager Commercial Crew Program; John Elbon, Boeing vice president and general manager of Space Exploration; and Robert Cabana, former shuttle commander and now Director NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, on Sept. 4, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Read my earlier exclusive, in depth one-on-one interviews with Chris Ferguson – America’s last shuttle commander and who now leads Boeings CST-100 program; here and here.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Boeing’s commercial CST-100 'Space Taxi' will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil.   Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing’s commercial CST-100 ‘Space Taxi’ will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil. Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Congressional Slashes to NASA Commercial Crew Force Bolden to ‘Buy Russian’ rather than ‘Buy American’

In the face of drastic funding cuts by the US Congress to NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) aimed at restoring America’s indigenous launch capability to fly our astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is being forced to spend another half a billion dollars for seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft instead of astronaut transport ships built by American workers in American manufacturing facilities.

The end effect of significantly slashing NASA’s Fiscal 2016 commercial crew budget request by both the US Senate and the US House is to tell NASA to ‘Buy Russian’ rather than to ‘Buy American.’

The $490 million of US taxpayer dollars will pay for six astronaut seats on the Soyuz manned capsule in 2018 and 2019 – that are now required due to uncertainty over whether the pair of new crewed transporters being built by Boeing and SpaceX for NASA will actually be available in 2017 as planned.

Furthermore the average cost per seat under the new contract with Russia rises to $81.7 million compared to about $76 million for the most recent contract, an increase of about 7 percent.

In response to the Congressional CCP budget cuts, NASA Administrator Bolden sent a letter notifying Congressional lawmakers about the agency’s new contract modifications with the Russian space agency about future crewed flights to the space station.

“I am writing to inform you that NASA, once again, has modified its current contract with the Russian government to meet America’s requirements for crew transportation services. Under this contract modification, the cost of these services to the U.S. taxpayers will be approximately $490 million,” Bolden wrote in an Aug. 5 letter to the leaders of the House and Senate committees responsible for deciding NASA’s funding.

The budget situation is completely inexplicable given the relentless pressure from Congress, led be Sen. John McCain, on the Department of Defense and US aerospace firm United Launch Alliance (ULA) to stop purchasing and using the Russian-made RD-180 engines for the 100% reliable Atlas V rocket by 2019 – as a way to punish Russian’s President Vladimir Putin and his allies.

Because on the other hand, those same congressional ‘leaders’ clearly have no hesitation whatsoever in putting money into Putin’s allies pockets via the NASA commercial crew account – at the expense of jobs for American workers and while simultaneously potentially endangering the ISS as a hedge against possible Russian launch failures. Multiple Russian and American rockets have suffered launch failures over the past year.

Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts by NASA Administrator Bolden in September 2014 worth $6.8 Billion to complete the development and manufacture of their privately developed CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut transporters under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The purpose of CCP is to end our “sole reliance” on the Russian Soyuz capsule and launch US astronauts on US rockets and spaceships from US soil by 2017.

With CCP we would continue to work cooperatively with the Russians to everyone’s benefit – but not be totally dependent on them.

Under NASA’s CCtCAP contract, the first orbital flights of the new ‘space taxis’ launching our astronauts to the International Space Station had been slated to blastoff in 2017. But that schedule was entirely dependent on NASA’s ability to pay both aerospace companies as they made progress on completing the contacted milestones absolutely critical to achieving flight status.

Bolden had already notified Congress in February that the new contract modification would become necessary if Congress failed to fully fund the CCP program to enable the 2017 flights.

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s trio of shuttle orbiters in 2011, all American and ISS partner astronauts have been forced to hitch a ride on the Soyuz for flights to the ISS and back.

“Our plans to return launches to American soil make fiscal sense,” Bolden said recently. “It currently costs $76 million per astronaut to fly on a Russian spacecraft. On an American-owned spacecraft, the average cost will be $58 million per astronaut.”

Instead, the Obama Administrations 2016 request for commercial crew (CCP) amounting to $1.244 Billion was dealt another blow, and slashed to only $900 million and $1.0 Billion by the Senate and House committees respectively.

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA
Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA

And this is just the latest in a lengthy string of cuts by Congress – which has not fully funded the Administration’s CCP funding requests, since its inception in 2010.

The budget significant budget slashes amounting to 50% or more by Congress, have already forced NASA to delay the first commercial crew flights of the private ‘space taxis’ from 2015 to 2017.

“Due to their continued reductions in the president’s funding requests for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program over the past several years, NASA was forced to extend its existing contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) to transport American astronauts to the International Space Station. This contract modification is valued at about $490 million,” said NASA.

So the net effect of Congressional CCP cuts has been to prolong US sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz manned capsule at a cost to the US taxpayers of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Indeed, given the crisis in Ukraine and recent Russian launch failures, one might think the Congress would eagerly embrace wanting to reduce our total dependence on the Russians for human spaceflight.

“Unfortunately, for five years now, the Congress, while incrementally increasing annual funding, has not adequately funded the Commercial Crew Program to return human spaceflight launches to American soil this year, as planned,” Bolden’s letter explains.

“This has resulted in continued sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as our crew transport vehicle for American and international partner crews to the ISS.”

“In 2010, I presented to Congress a plan to partner with American industry to return launches to the United States by 2015 if provided the requested level of funding.”

So if Congress had funded the commercial crew program, the US would have launched its first human crews on the CST-100 and crew Dragon to the ISS this year – 2015.

NASA has selected experienced astronauts Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams to work closely with The Boeing Company and SpaceX to develop their crew transportation systems and provide crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station.  Credits: NASA
NASA has selected experienced astronauts Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams to work closely with The Boeing Company and SpaceX to develop their crew transportation systems and provide crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station. Credits: NASA

Bolden also repeated his request to work with the leaders of Congress in the best interests of our country.

“I am asking that we put past disagreements behind us and focus our collective efforts on support for American industry – the Boeing Corporation and SpaceX – to complete construction and certification of their crew vehicles so that we can begin launching our crews from the Space Coast of Florida in 2017.”

Currently, both Boeing and SpaceX are on track to meet the 2017 objective – but only if the CCP funds are restored.

Otherwise the contracts will have to be renegotiated and progress will be severely reduced – all at added cost. Another instance of pennywise and pound foolish.

“Our Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contractors are on track today to provide certified crew transportation systems in 2017,” says Bolden.

“Reductions from the FY 2016 request for Commercial Crew proposed in the House and Senate FY 2016 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies appropriations bills would result in NASA’s inability to fund several planned CCtCap milestones in FY 2016 and would likely result in funds running out for both contractors during the spring/summer of FY 2016.”

“If this occurs, the existing fixed-price CCtCap contracts may need to be renegotiated, likely resulting in further schedule slippage and increased cost.”

Overall, it’s just a terrible state of affairs for the future of US human spaceflight, as Congress once again places partisan politics ahead of the interests of the American people.

The fact is that the commercial crew space taxis from Boeing and SpaceX are the fastest, cheapest and most efficient pathway to get our astronaut crews to the Earth orbiting space station and back.

Common sense says we must restore our independent path to the ISS – safely and as quickly as possible.

SpaceX and Boeing are building the private crew Dragon and CST-100 spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil aboard Falcon 9 and Atlas V rockets (similar to these) to the International Space Station in 2017 - depending on funding from Congress. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX and Boeing are building the private crew Dragon and CST-100 spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil aboard Falcon 9 and Atlas V rockets (similar to these) to the International Space Station in 2017 – depending on funding from Congress. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA Names Four Astronauts for First Boeing, SpaceX U.S. Commercial Spaceflights

NASA today (July 9) named the first four astronauts who will fly on the first U.S. commercial spaceflights in private crew transportation vehicles being built by Boeing and SpaceX – marking a major milestone towards restoring American human launches to U.S. soil as soon as mid-2017, if all goes well.

The four astronauts chosen are all veterans of flights on NASA’s Space Shuttles and to the International Space Station (ISS); Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams. They now form the core of NASA’s commercial crew astronaut corps eligible for the maiden test flights on board the Boeing CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut capsules.

Behnken, Boe and Hurley have each launched on two shuttle missions and Williams is a veteran of two long-duration flights aboard the ISS after launching on both the shuttle and Soyuz. All four served as military test pilots prior to being selected as NASA astronauts.

The experienced quartet of space flyers will work closely with Boeing and SpaceX as they begin training and prepare to launch aboard the first ever commercial ‘space taxi’ ferry flight missions to the ISS and back – that will also end our sole source reliance on the Russian Soyuz capsule for crewed missions to low-Earth orbit and further serve to open up space exploration and transportation services to the private sector.

Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in September 2014 worth $6.8 Billion to complete the development and manufacture of the privately developed CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut transporters under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

“I am pleased to announce four American space pioneers have been selected to be the first astronauts to train to fly to space on commercial crew vehicles, all part of our ambitious plan to return space launches to U.S. soil, create good-paying American jobs and advance our goal of sending humans farther into the solar system than ever before,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a statement.

“These distinguished, veteran astronauts are blazing a new trail — a trail that will one day land them in the history books and Americans on the surface of Mars.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The selection of astronauts for rides with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) comes almost exactly four years to the day since the last American manned space launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis on the STS-135 mission to the space station on July 8, 2011 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Hurley was a member of the STS-135 crew and served as shuttle pilot under NASA’s last shuttle commander, Chris Ferguson, who is now Director of Boeing’s CST-100 commercial crew program. Read my earlier exclusive interviews with Ferguson about the CST-100 – here and here.

Since the retirement of the shuttle orbiters, all American and ISS partner astronauts have been forced to hitch a ride on the Soyuz for flights to the ISS and back, at a current cost of over $70 million per seat.

“Our plans to return launches to American soil make fiscal sense,” Bolden elaborated. “It currently costs $76 million per astronaut to fly on a Russian spacecraft. On an American-owned spacecraft, the average cost will be $58 million per astronaut.

Behnken, Boe, Hurley and Williams are all eager to work with the Boeing and SpaceX teams to “understand their designs and operations as they finalize their Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and operational strategies in support of their crewed flight tests and certification activities as part of their contracts with NASA.”

Until June 2015, Williams held the record for longest time in space by a woman, accumulating 322 days in orbit. Behnken is currently the chief of the astronaut core and conducted six space walks at the station. Boe has spent over 28 days in space and flew on the final mission of Space Shuttle Discovery in Feb. 2011 on STS-133.

The first commercial crew flights under the CCtCAP contract could take place in 2017 with at least one member of the two person crews being a NASA astronaut – who will be “on board to verify the fully-integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the space station, as well as validate all systems perform as expected, and land safely,” according to a NASA statement.

The second crew member could be a company test pilot as the details remain to be worked out.

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA
Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA

The actual launch date depends on the NASA budget allocation for the Commercial Crew Program approved by the US Congress.

Congress has never approved NASA’s full funding request for the CCP program and has again cut the program significantly in initial votes this year. So the outlook for a 2017 launch is very uncertain.

Were it not for the drastic CCP cuts we would be launching astronauts this year on the space taxis.

“Every dollar we invest in commercial crew is a dollar we invest in ourselves, rather than in the Russian economy,” Bolden emphasizes about the multifaceted benefits of the commercial crew initiative.

Under the CCtCAP contract, NASA recently ordered the agency’s first commercial crew mission from Boeing – as outlined in my story here. SpaceX will receive a similar CCtCAP mission order later this year.

At a later date, NASA will decide whether Boeing or SpaceX will launch the actual first commercial crew test flight mission to low Earth orbit.

Boeing’s commercial CST-100 'Space Taxi' will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil.   Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing’s commercial CST-100 ‘Space Taxi’ will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil. Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“This is a new and exciting era in the history of U.S. human spaceflight,” said Brian Kelly, director of Flight Operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a statement.

“These four individuals, like so many at NASA and the Flight Operations Directorate, have dedicated their careers to becoming experts in the field of aeronautics and furthering human space exploration. The selection of these experienced astronauts who are eligible to fly aboard the test flights for the next generation of U.S. spacecraft to the ISS and low-Earth orbit ensures that the crews will be well-prepared and thoroughly trained for their missions.”

Both the CST-100 and Crew Dragon will typically carry a crew of four NASA or NASA-sponsored crew members, along with some 220 pounds of pressurized cargo. Each will also be capable of carrying up to seven crew members depending on how the capsule is configured.

The spacecraft will be capable to remaining docked at the station for up to 210 days and serve as an emergency lifeboat during that time.

The NASA CCtCAP contracts call for a minimum of two and a maximum potential of six missions from each provider.

The station crew will also be enlarged to seven people that will enable a doubling of research time.
The CST-100 will be carried to low Earth orbit atop a man-rated United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. It enjoys a 100% success rate.

Boeing will first conduct a pair of unmanned and manned orbital CST-100 test flights earlier in 2017 in April and July, prior to the operational commercial crew rotation mission to confirm that their capsule is ready and able and met all certification milestone requirements set by NASA.

The Crew Dragon will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It enjoyed a 100% success rate until last weeks launch on its 19th flight which ended with an explosion two minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral on June 28, 2015.

Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch  from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX conducted a successful Pad Abort Test of the Crew Dragon on May 6, as I reported here. The goal was to test the spacecrafts abort systems that will save astronauts lives in a split second in the case of a launch emergency such as occurred during the June 28 rocket failure in flight that was bound for the ISS with the initial cargo version of the SpaceX Dragon.

SpaceX plans an unmanned orbital test flight of Crew Dragon perhaps by the end of 2016. The crewed orbital test flight would follow sometime in 2017.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA Orders First Ever Commercial Human Spaceflight Mission from Boeing

The restoration of America’s ability to launch American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil in 2017 took a major step forward when NASA ordered the first ever commercial human spaceflight mission from Boeing.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) office gave the first commercial crew rotation mission award to the Boeing Company to launch its CST-100 astronaut crew capsule to the ISS by late 2017, so long as the company satisfactorily meets all of NASA’s human spaceflight certification milestones.

Thus begins the history making new era of commercial human spaceflight.

“This occasion will go in the books of Boeing’s nearly 100 years of aerospace and more than 50 years of space flight history,” said John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s Space Exploration division, in a statement.

“We look forward to ushering in a new era in human space exploration.”

Boeing was awarded a $4.2 Billion contract in September 2014 by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to complete development and manufacture of the CST-100 ‘space taxi’ under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

“Final development and certification are top priority for NASA and our commercial providers, but having an eye on the future is equally important to the commercial crew and station programs,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“Our strategy will result in safe, reliable and cost-effective crew missions.”

Boeing CST-100 crew capsule will carry five person crews to the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing CST-100 crew capsule will carry four to seven person crews to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The CST-100 will be carried to low Earth orbit atop a manrated United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Boeing will first conduct a pair of unmanned and manned orbital CST-100 test flights earlier in 2017 in April and July, prior to the operational commercial crew rotation mission to confirm that their capsule is ready and able and met all certification milestone requirements set by NASA.

“Orders under the CCtCap contracts are made two to three years prior to the missions to provide time for each company to manufacture and assemble the launch vehicle and spacecraft. In addition, each company must successfully complete the certification process before NASA will give the final approval for flight,” says NASA.

Boeing got the mission order from NASA because they have “successfully demonstrated to NASA that the Commercial Crew Transportation System has reached design maturity appropriate to proceed to assembly, integration and test activities.”

Boeing recently completed the fourth milestone in the CCtCap phase dubbed the delta integrated critical design review.

Read my earlier exclusive, in depth one-on-one interviews with Chris Ferguson – America’s last shuttle commander and who now leads Boeings CST-100 program; here and here.

The commercial crew program is designed to return human spaceflight launches to the United States and end our sole source reliance on Russia and the Soyuz capsule.

ISS Soyuz crew rotation missions are currently on hold due to the recent launch failure of the Russian Soyuz booster and Progress resupply vessel earlier this month.

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s shuttle orbiters in 2011, US astronauts have been totally dependent on the Russians for trips to space and back.

Boeing unveiled full scale mockup of their commercial  CST-100  'Space Taxi' on June 9, 2014 at its intended manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  The private vehicle will launch US astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing unveiled full scale mockup of their commercial CST-100 ‘Space Taxi’ on June 9, 2014 at its intended manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The private vehicle will launch US astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

SpaceX also received a NASA award worth $2.6 Billion to build the Crew Dragon spacecraft for launch atop the firms man-rated Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX conducted a successful Pad Abort Test of the Crew Dragon on May 6, fulfilling a key NASA milestone, as I reported here.

NASA will order a commercial mission from SpaceX sometime later this year. At a later date NASA will decide which company will fly the first commercial crew rotation mission to the ISS.

Both the CST-100 and Crew Dragon will typically carry a crew of four or five NASA or NASA-sponsored crew members, along with some 220 pounds of pressurized cargo. Each will also be capable of carrying up to seven crew members depending on how the capsule is configured.

Hatch opening to Boeing’s commercial CST-100 crew transporter.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Hatch opening to Boeing’s commercial CST-100 crew transporter. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The spacecraft will be capable to remaining docked at the station for up to 210 days and serve as an emergency lifeboat during that time.

The NASA CCtCAP contracts call for a minimum of two and a maximum potential of six missions from each provider.

The station crew will also be enlarged to seven people that will enable a doubling of research time.

“Commercial Crew launches are critical to the International Space Station Program because it ensures multiple ways of getting crews to orbit,” said Julie Robinson, International Space Station chief scientist.

“It also will give us crew return capability so we can increase the crew to seven, letting us complete a backlog of hands-on critical research that has been building up due to heavy demand for the National Laboratory.”

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program initiative aims to restore US access to the ISS. Credit: NASA
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program initiative aims to restore US access to the ISS. Credit: NASA

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

SpaceX Completes Successful Crew Dragon Test of Astronaut Life Saving Escape System

Soaring on the power of an octet of SuperDrago engines, SpaceX successfully completed a critical rapid fire life-saving test of their Dragon crew capsules pad abort emergency escape system that would ignite in a split second to save the astronauts lives in the unlikely event of a failure of the Falcon 9 booster rocket at the Cape Canaveral launch pad.

The uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon roared swiftly skywards upon ignition of the test vehicle’s integrated SuperDraco engines at 9 a.m EDT this morning, Wednesday, May 6, for the mile high test conducted from the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad from a specially built platform at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

A human-sized crash test dummy was seated inside for the test exercise which ended safely with a parachute assisted Atlantic Ocean splashdown after less than two minutes. There were no astronauts aboard.

The SuperDraco engines fired for approximately six seconds and accelerated the crew Dragon “from 0 to 100 mph in 1.2 seconds. It reached a top speed of about 345 mph,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in a post test briefing.

“This bodes quite well for the future of the program. I don’t want to jinx it, but this is really quite a good indication for the future of Dragon.” said Elon Musk.

“We hope to launch the first crews to the ISS within about two years, plus or minus six months.”

The side mounted escape engines mark a revolutionary change from the traditional top mounted launch escape system used previously in the Mercury, Apollo, Soyuz and Orion human spaceflight capsules. The space shuttle had no escape system beyond ejections seats used on the first four flights.

Dragon was mounted atop the finned trunk section for the test. The entire Dragon/trunk assembly was about 20 feet (5 meters) tall.

The test is a critical milestone towards the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil abroad US rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2017.

“This is a critical step toward ensuring crew safety for government and commercial endeavors in low-Earth orbit,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“Congratulations to SpaceX on what appears to have been a successful test on the company’s road toward achieving NASA certification of the Crew Dragon spacecraft for missions to and from the International Space Station.”

Here is a video of the Pad Abort Test:

Video caption: Powered by its SuperDraco engines, the uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon flies through its paces in the Pad Abort Test from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: NASA

After all the monomethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide hypergolic propellants were consumed, Dragon soared as planned to an altitude of about 1500 meters (.93 mi) above the launch pad. At about T+21 seconds the trunk was jettisoned and the spacecraft began a slow rotation with its heat shield pointed toward the ground again as it arced out eastwards over the ocean.

The drogue chutes and trio of red and white main parachutes deployed as planned for a picturesque Dragon splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean about a mile offshore of its Cape Canaveral launch pad. The capsule was retrieved from the ocean by waiting recovery boats.

Today’s pad abort demonstration tested the ability of the set of eight SuperDraco engines integrated directly into the side walls of the crew Dragon to ignite simultaneously and pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a split second – in a simulated emergency to save the astronauts lives in the event of a real emergency.

Therefore the Pad Abort Test did not include an actual Falcon 9 booster since it was focused on a checkout of the capsule’s escape capability.

Sequence of May 6, 2015 SpaceX Pad Abort Test Flight in Four Frames. Credit: NASA
Sequence of May 6, 2015 SpaceX Pad Abort Test Flight in Four Frames. Credit: NASA

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs built into the capsule around the base. Each engine produces about 15,000 pounds of thrust pounds of axial thrust, for a combined total thrust of about 120,000 pounds in under one second, to propel the astronauts safely away.

The entire test lasted less than two minutes.

The test was webcast live on NASA TV: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

The crew Dragon is outfitted with 270 sensors to measure a wide range of vehicle, engine, acceleration and abort test parameters.

The pad abort test was accomplished under SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement with NASA, that will eventually lead to certification of the Dragon for crewed missions to low Earth orbit and the ISS.

A second Dragon flight test follows later in the year, perhaps in the summer. It will launch from a SpaceX pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and involves simulating an in flight emergency abort scenario during ascent at high altitude at maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q) at about T plus 1 minute, to save astronauts lives.

The pusher abort thrusters would propel the capsule and crew safely away from a failing Falcon 9 booster for a parachute assisted splashdown into the ocean.

“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX, at a prelaunch briefing.

“The pad abort is going to show that we’ve developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It’s our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Key Facts and Timeline for SpaceX Crewed Dragon’s First Test Flight May 6 – Watch Live

The first critical test flight of SpaceX’s crewed Dragon that will soon launch American astronauts back to orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil is now less than two days away.

The test flight – called the Pad Abort Test – is slated for the early morning hours of Wednesday, May 6, if all goes well. The key facts and a timeline of the test events are outlined herein.

The test vehicle will reach roughly a mile in altitude (5000 feet, 1500 meters) and last only about 90 seconds in duration from beginning to end.

It constitutes a crucial first test of the crew capsule escape system that will save astronauts lives in a split second in the unlikely event of a catastrophic launch pad failure with the Falcon 9 rocket.

The May 6 pad abort test will be performed from the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad from a platform at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The test will not include an actual Falcon 9 booster.

SpaceX has just released new images showing the Dragon crew capsule and trunk section being moved to the launch pad and being positioned atop the launch mount on SLC-40. See above and below. Together the Dragon assembly stands about 20 feet (5 meters) tall.

SpaceX Pad Abort Test vehicle being transported at the Florida launch complex. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Pad Abort Test vehicle being transported at the Florida launch complex. Credit: SpaceX

A test dummy is seated inside. And SpaceX now says the dummy is not named “Buster” despite an earlier announcement from the company.

“Buster the Dummy already works for a great show you may have heard of called MythBusters. Our dummy prefers to remain anonymous for the time being,” SpaceX said today.

So, only time will tell if that particular mission fact will ever be revealed.

You can watch the Pad Abort Test via a live webcast on NASA TV: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

The test window opens at 7 a.m. EDT May 6 and extends until 2:30 p.m. EDT into the afternoon.

The webcast will start about 20 minutes prior to the opening of the window. NASA will also provide periodic updates about the test at their online Commercial Crew Blog.

The current weather forecast predicts a 70% GO for favorable weather conditions during the lengthy test window.

Since the Pad Abort Test is specifically designed to be a development test, in order to learn crucial things about the performance of the escape system, it doesn’t have to be perfect to be valuable.

And delays due to technical issues are a very significant possibility.

“No matter what happens on test day, SpaceX is going to learn a lot,” said Jon Cowart, NASA’s partner manager for SpaceX at a May 1 media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center press site. “One test is worth a thousand good analyses.”

The test is critical for the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil abroad US rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2017.

Here’s a graphic illustrating the May 6 SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of planned events.

Graphic illustrates the SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of events planned for May 6, 2015 from Cape Canaveral launch complex 40.  Credit: SpaceX
Graphic illustrates the SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of events planned for May 6, 2015 from Cape Canaveral launch complex 40. Credit: SpaceX

The Crew Dragon will accelerate to nearly 100 mph in barely one second. The test will last less than two minutes and the ship will travel over one mile in the first 20 seconds alone.

The pad abort demonstration will test the ability of a set of eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the crew Dragon to pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a split second in a simulated emergency to save the astronauts lives in the event of a real emergency.

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs around the base. Each engine produces about 15,000 pounds of thrust pounds of axial thrust, for a combined total thrust of about 120,000 pounds, to carry astronauts to safety.

The eight SuperDraco’s will propel Dragon nearly 100 meters (328 ft) in 2 seconds, and more than half a kilometer (1/3 mi) in just over 5 seconds.

SpaceX likens the test to “an ejection seat for a fighter pilot, but instead of ejecting the pilot out of the spacecraft, the entire spacecraft is “ejected” away from the launch vehicle.”

Here’s a timeline of events from SpaceX:

T-0: The eight SuperDracos ignite simultaneously and reach maximum thrust, propelling the spacecraft off the pad.

T+.5s: After half a second of vertical flight, Crew Dragon pitches toward the ocean and continues its controlled burn. The SuperDraco engines throttle to control the trajectory based on real-time measurements from the vehicle’s sensors.

T+5s: The abort burn is terminated once all propellant is consumed and Dragon coasts for just over 15 seconds to its highest point about 1500 meters (.93 mi) above the launch pad.

T+21s: The trunk is jettisoned and the spacecraft begins a slow rotation with its heat shield pointed toward the ground again.

T+25s: Small parachutes, called drogues, are deployed first during a 4-6 second window following trunk separation.

T+35s: Once the drogue parachutes stabilize the vehicle, three main parachutes deploy and further slow the spacecraft before splashdown.

T+107s: Dragon splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean about 2200 meters (1.4 mi) downrange of the launch pad.

SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX

“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX.

“The pad abort is going to show that we’ve developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It’s our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”

The pusher abort thrusters would propel the capsule and crew safely away from a failing Falcon 9 booster for a parachute assisted splashdown into the Ocean.

Koenigsmann notes that the SpaceX abort system provides for emergency escape all the way to orbit, unlike any prior escape system such as the conventional launch abort systems (LAS) mounted on top of the capsule.

The next Falcon 9 launch is slated for mid-June carrying the CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship on a resupply mission for NASA to the ISS. On April 14, a flawless Falcon 9 launch boosted the SpaceX CRS-6 Dragon to the ISS.

There was no attempt to soft land the Falcon 9 first stage during the most recent launch on April 27. Due to the heavy weight of the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite there was not enough residual fuel for a landing attempt on SpaceX’s ocean going barge.

The next landing attempt is set for the CRS-7 mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX Prepares for Crucial Crew Dragon Capsule Pad Abort Test

SpaceX is preparing for the first of two critical abort tests for the firm’s next generation human rated Dragon V2 capsule as soon as March.

The purpose of the pair of abort tests is to demonstrate a crew escape capability to save the astronauts’ lives in case of a rocket failure, starting from the launch pad and going all the way to orbit.

The SpaceX Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 vehicles were selected by NASA last fall for further funding under the auspices of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) as the world’s privately developed spaceships to ferry astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

Both SpaceX and Boeing plan to launch the first manned test flights to the ISS with their respective transports in 2017.

During the Sept. 16, 2014, news briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that contracts worth a total of $6.8 Billion were awarded to SpaceX to build the manned Dragon V2 and to Boeing to build the manned CST-100.

The first abort test involving the pad abort test is currently slated to take place soon from the company’s launch pad on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, according to Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX.

“First up is a pad abort in about a month,” said Shotwell during a media briefing last week at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

SpaceX engineers have been building the pad abort test vehicle for the unmanned test for more than a year at their headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Dragon V2 builds on and significantly upgrades the technology for the initial cargo version of the Dragon which has successfully flown five operational resupply missions to the ISS.

“It took us quite a while to get there, but there’s a lot of great technology and innovations in that pad abort vehicle,” noted Shotwell.

First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in March 2014.  Credit: SpaceX.
First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in March 2014. Credit: SpaceX.

The pad abort demonstration will test the ability of a set of eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the crew Dragon to pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a simulated emergency.

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs around the base. Each engine can produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety, according to a SpaceX description.

Here is a SpaceX video of SuperDraco’s being hot fire tested in Texas:

Video caption: Full functionality of Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco jetpacks demonstrated with hotfire test in McGregor, TX. Credit: SpaceX

For the purpose of this test, the crew Dragon will sit on top of a facsimile of the unpressurized trunk portion of the Dragon. It will not be loaded on top of a Falcon 9 rocket for the pad abort test.

The second abort test involves a high altitude abort test launching atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“An in-flight abort test [follows] later this year,” said Shotwell.

“The Integrated launch abort system is critically important to us. We think it gives incredible safety features for a full abort all the way through ascent.”

“It does also allow us the ultimate goal of fully propulsive landing.”

Both tests were originally scheduled for 2014 as part of the firm’s prior CCiCAP development phase contract with NASA, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told me in late 2013.

“Assuming all goes well, we expect to conduct [up to] two Dragon abort tests next year in 2014,” Musk explained.

Last year, NASA granted SpaceX an extension into 2015 for both tests under SpaceX’s CCiCAP milestones.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters, including Universe Today, in Cocoa Beach, FL, during prior SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters, including Universe Today, in Cocoa Beach, FL, during a prior SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The SpaceX Dragon V2 will launch atop a human rated Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral.

“We understand the incredible responsibility we’ve been given to carry crew. We should fly over 50 Falcon 9’s before crewed flight,” said Shotwell.

To accomplish the first manned test flight to the ISS by 2017, the US Congress must agree to fully fund the commercial crew program.

“To do this we need for Congress to approve full funding for the Commercial Crew Program,” Bolden said at last week’s JSC media briefing.

Severe budget cuts by Congress forced NASA into a two year delay in the first commercial crew flights to the ISS from 2015 to 2017 – and also forced NASA to pay hundreds of millions of more dollars to the Russians for crews seats aboard their Soyuz instead of employing American aerospace workers.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA
Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA