SpaceX and NASA Confirm Delay of First Crewed Dragon Flight to 2018

SpaceX Dragon V2 docks at the ISS. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon V2 docks at the ISS. Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Launching Americans back to space and the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil on American rockets via NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) has just suffered another significant but not unexpected delay, with an announcement from NASA that the target date for inaugural crewed flight aboard a SpaceX commercial Crew Dragon has slipped significantly from 2017 to 2018.

NASA announced the revised schedule on Dec. 12 and SpaceX media affairs confirmed the details of the launch delay to Universe Today.

The postponement of the demonstration mission launch is the latest fallout from the recent launch pad explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sept. 1 during final preparations and fueling operations for a routine preflight static fire test.

Since the Falcon 9 is exactly the same booster that SpaceX will employ to loft American astronauts in the SpaceX Crew Dragon to the space station, the stakes could not be higher with astronauts lives on the line.

Blastoff of the first Crew Dragon spacecraft on its first unmanned test flight is postponed from May 2017 to August 2017, according to the latest quarterly revision just released by NASA. Liftoff of the first piloted Crew Dragon with a pair of NASA astronauts strapped in has slipped from August 2017 to May 2018.

“The Commercial crew updated dates for Demo 1 (no crew) is Q4 2017,” SpaceX’s Phil Larson told Universe Today. “For Demo 2 (with 2 crew members) the updated commercial crew date is Q2 2018 [for Crew Dragon].”

Meet Dragon V2 - SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX's new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX
Meet Dragon V2 – SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX’s new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX

Although much has been accomplished since NASA’s commercial crew program started in 2010, much more remains to be done before NASA will approve these launches.

“The next generation of American spacecraft and rockets that will launch astronauts to the International Space Station are nearing the final stages of development and evaluation,” said NASA KSC public affairs officer Stephanie Martin.

Above all both of the commercial crew providers – namely Boeing and SpaceX – must demonstrate safe, reliable and robust spacecraft and launch systems.

“NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will return human spaceflight launches to U.S. soil, providing reliable and cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit on systems that meet our safety and mission requirements. To meet NASA’s requirements, the commercial providers must demonstrate that their systems are ready to begin regular flights to the space station.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL,  on Sept. 1, 2016.  A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

These latest launch delays come on top of other considerable delays announced earlier this year when SpaceX has still hoping to launch the unpiloted Crew Dragon mission before the end of 2016 – prior to the Sept 1 launch pad catastrophe.

“We are finalizing the investigation of our Sept. 1 anomaly and are working to complete the final steps necessary to safely and reliably return to flight,” Larson told me.

“As this investigation has been conducted, our Commercial Crew team has continued to work closely with NASA and is completing all planned milestones for this period.”

SpaceX is still investigating the root causes of the Sept. 1 anomaly, working on fixes and implementing any design changes – as well as writing the final report that must be submitted to the FAA, before they can launch the planned ‘Return to Flight’ mission from their California launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

No launch can occur until the FAA grants a license after fully assessing the SpaceX anomaly report.

Last week SpaceX announced a delay in resuming launches at Vandenberg until no earlier than January 2017.

“We are carefully assessing our designs, systems, and processes taking into account the lessons learned and corrective actions identified. Our schedule reflects the additional time needed for this assessment and implementation,” Larson elaborated.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Boeing has likewise significantly postponed their debut unpiloted and piloted launches of their CST-100 Starliner astronaut space taxi by more than six months this year alone.

The first crewed Boeing Starliner is now slated for a launch in August 2018, possibly several months after SpaceX. But the schedules keep changing so it’s anyone’s guess as to when these commercial crew launches will actually occur.

Another big issue that has cropped up since the Sept. 1 pad disaster, regards the procedures and timing for fueling the Falcon 9 rocket with astronauts on board. SpaceX is proposing to load the propellants with the crew already on board, unlike the practice of the past 50 years where the astronauts climbed aboard after the extremely dangerous fueling operation was completed.

SpaceX proposes this change due to their recent use of superchilled liquid oxygen and resulting new operational requirement to fuel the rocket in the last 30 minutes prior to liftoff.

Although a SpaceX hazard report outlining these changes was approved by NASA’s Safety Technical Review Board in July 2016, an objection was raised by former astronaut Maj. Gen. Thomas Stafford and the International Space Station Advisory Committee.

“SpaceX has designed a reliable fueling and launch process that minimizes the duration and number of personnel exposed to the hazards of launching a rocket,” Larson explained.

“As part of this process, the crew will safely board the Crew Dragon, ground personnel will depart, propellants will be carefully loaded and then the vehicle will launch. During this time the Crew Dragon launch abort system will be enabled.”

SpaceX says they have performed a detailed safety analysis with NASA of all potential hazards with this process.

“The hazard report documenting the controls was approved by NASA’s Safety Technical Review Board in July 2016.”

SpaceX representatives recently met with Stafford and the ISS review board to address their concerns, but the outcome and whether anything was resolved is not known.

“We recently met with Maj. Gen. Stafford and the International Space Station Advisory Committee to provide them detailed information on our approach and answer a number of questions. SpaceX and NASA will continue our ongoing assessment while keeping the committee apprised of our progress,” Larson explained.

The Falcon 9 fueling procedure issue relating to astronaut safety must be satisfactorily resolved before any human launch with Dragon can take place, and will be reported on further here.

Whenever the Crew Dragon does fly it will launch from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at Launch Complex 39A – the former shuttle launch pad which SpaceX has leased from NASA.

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX is currently renovating pad 39A for launches of manned Falcon 9/Dragon missions. And the firm has decided to use it for commercial missions as well while pad 40 is repaired following the pad accident.

This week a Falcon 9 first stage was spotted entering Cape Canaveral to prepare for an upcoming launch.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrives at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 12, 2016 for launch sometime in 2017. Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrives at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 12, 2016 for launch sometime in 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

Getting our astronauts back to space with home grown technology is proving to be far more difficult and time consuming than anyone anticipated – despite the relative simplicity of developing capsule-like vehicles vs. NASA’s highly complex and hugely capable Space Shuttle vehicles.

And time is of the essence for the commercial crew program.

Because for right now, the only path to the ISS for all American astronauts is aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule through seats purchased by NASA – at about $82 million each. But NASA’s contract with Roscosmos for future flight opportunities runs out at the end of 2018. So there is barely a few months margin left before the last available contracted seat is taken.

It takes about 2 years lead time for Russia to build the Soyuz and NASA is not planning to buy any new seats.

So any further delays to SpaceX or Boeing could result in an interruption of US and partner flights to the ISS in 2019 – which is primarily American built.

Exterior of the Crew Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX.
Exterior of the Crew Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX.

Since its inception, the commercial crew program has been severely and shortsightedly underfunded by the US Congress. They have repeatedly cut the Administration’s annual budget requests, delaying forward progress and first crewed flights from 2015 to 2018, and forcing NASA to buy additional Soyuz seats from Russia at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

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

Ken Kremer

1st Boeing Starliner Hull Assembled as 1st Crew Flight Delays to 2018

The first Boeing CST-100 Starliner hull is bolted together by technicians working in Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 2 for  the Structural Test Article pressure vessel.  Credit: NASA
The first Boeing CST-100 Starliner hull is bolted together by technicians working in Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 2 for the Structural Test Article pressure vessel. Credit: NASA

As completion nears for the prototype of Boeing’s first Starliner astronaut taxi, the aerospace firm announced a slip into 2018 for the blastoff date of the first crewed flight in order to deal with spacecraft mass, aerodynamic launch and flight software issues, a Boeing spokesperson told Universe Today.

Until this week, Boeing was aiming for a first crewed launch of the commercial Starliner capsule by late 2017, company officials had said.

The new target launch date for the first astronauts flying aboard a Boeing CST-100 Starliner “is February 2018,” Boeing spokeswoman Rebecca Regan told Universe Today.

“Until very recently we were marching toward the 2017 target date.”

Word of the launch postponement came on Wednesday via an announcement by Boeing executive vice president Leanne Caret at a company investor conference.

Boeing will conduct two critical unmanned test flights leading up to the manned test flight and has notified NASA of the revised flight schedule.

“The Pad Abort test is October 2017 in New Mexico. Boeing will fly an uncrewed orbital flight test in December 2017 and a crewed orbital flight test in February 2018,” Regan told me.

Previously, the uncrewed and crewed test flights were slated for June and October 2017.

The inaugural crew flight will carry two astronauts to the International Space Station including a Boeing test pilot and a NASA astronaut.

“Boeing just recently presented this new schedule to NASA that gives a realistic look at where we are in the development. These programs are challenging.”

“As we build and test we are learning things. We are doing everything we can to make sure the vehicle is ready and safe – because that’s what most important,” Regan emphasized.

Indeed engineers just bolted together the upper and lower domes of Boeings maiden Starliner crew module last week, on May 2, forming the complete hull of the pressure vessel for the Structural Test Article (STA).

Boeing was awarded the first service flight of the CST-100 crew capsule to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability agreement with NASA in this artists concept.  Credit: Boeing
Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew capsule approaches the International Space Station in this artists concept. Credit: Boeing

Altogether there are 216 holes for the bolts. They have to line up perfectly. The seals are checked to make sure there are no leaks, which could be deadly in space.

Starliner is being manufactured in Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

The STA will be subjected to rigorous environmental and loads testing to prove its fitness to fly humans to space and survive the harsh extremes of the space environment.

Regan cited three technical factors accounting for the delayed launch schedule. The first relates to mass.

“There are a couple of things that impacted the schedule as discussed recently by John Elbon, Boeing vice president and general manager of Space Exploration.”

“First is mass of the spacecraft. Mass whether it’s from aircraft or spacecraft is obviously always something that’s inside the box. We are working that,” Regan stated.

The second relates to aerodynamic loads which Boeing engineers believe they may have solved.

“Another challenge is aero-acoustic issues related to the spacecraft atop the launch vehicle. Data showed us that the spacecraft was experiencing some pressures [during launch] that we needed to go work on more.”

Starliners will launch to space atop the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“The aerodynamic acoustic loads data we were getting told us that we needed to go do some additional work. We actually now have a really viable option that we are testing right now in a wind tunnel this month.”

“So we think we are on the right path there. We have some design options we are looking at. We think we found a viable option that’s inside the scope of where we need to be on those aerodynamic acoustics in load.”

“So we will look at the data from the new wind tunnel tests.”

The third relates to new software requirements from NASA for docking at the ISS.

“NASA also levied some additional software requirements on us, in order to dock with the station. So those additional software requirements alone, in the contract, probably added about 3 months to our schedule, for our developers to work that.”

Technicians monitor connection operation of upper and lower domes of the first complete hull for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s Structural Test Article vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center on May 2, 2016. Credit: NASA
Technicians monitor connection operation of upper and lower domes of the first complete hull for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s Structural Test Article vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center on May 2, 2016. Credit: Boeing

The Boeing CST 100 Starliner is one of two private astronaut capsules – along with the SpaceX Crew Dragon – being developed under a commercial partnership contract with NASA to end our sole reliance on Russia for crew launches back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

The goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is to restore America’s capability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil to the ISS, as soon as possible.

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 Starliner space taxi under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

Since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, the US was been 100% dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronauts rides to the ISS at a cost exceeding $70 million per seat.

Due to huge CCP funding cuts by Congress, the targeted launch dates for both Starliner and Crew Dragon have been delayed repeatedly from the initially planned 2015 timeframe to the latest goal of 2017.

Upper and lower domes come together to form first complete hull for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s Structural Test Article vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center on May 2, 2016. Credit: NASA
Upper and lower domes come together to form first complete hull for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s Structural Test Article vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center on May 2, 2016. Credit: Boeing

The Structural Test Article plays a critical role serving as the pathfinder vehicle to validate the manufacturing and processing methods for the production of all the operational spacecraft that will follow in the future.

Although it will never fly in space, the STA is currently being built inside the renovated C3PF using the same techniques and processes planned for the operational spacecraft that will carry astronaut crews of four or more aloft to the ISS in 2018 and beyond.

View of upper dome and newly attached crew access tunnel of the first Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crew  spaceship under assembly at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.   This is part of the maiden Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s refurbished Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) manufacturing facility at KSC. Numerous strain gauges have been installed for loads testing. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
View of upper dome and newly attached crew access tunnel of the first Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crew spaceship under assembly at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. This is part of the maiden Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s refurbished Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) manufacturing facility at KSC. Numerous strain gauges have been installed for loads testing. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

“The Structural Test Article is not meant to ever fly in space but rather to prove the manufacturing methods and overall ability of the spacecraft to handle the demands of spaceflight carrying astronauts to the International Space Station,” says NASA.

The STA is also the first spacecraft to come together inside the former shuttle hangar known as an orbiter processing facility, since shuttle Discovery was moved out of the facility following its retirement and move to the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, D.C., in 2012.

“It’s actually bustling in there right now, which is awesome. Really exciting stuff,”Regan told me.

Regan also confirmed that the completed Starliner STA will soon be transported to Boeing’s facility in Huntington Beach, California for a period of critical stress testing that verifies the capabilities and worthiness of the spacecraft.

“Boeing’s testing facility in Huntington Beach, California has all the facilities to do the structural testing and apply loads. They are set up to test spacecraft,” said Danom Buck, manager of Boeing’s Manufacturing and Engineering team at KSC, during a prior interview in the C3PF.

“At Huntington Beach we will test for all of the load cases that the vehicle will fly in and land in – so all of the worst stressing cases.”

“So we have predicted loads and will compare that to what we actually see in testing and see whether that matches what we predicted.”

NASA notes that “the tests must bear out that the capsules can handle the conditions of space as well as engine firings and the pressure of launch, ascent and reentry. In simple terms, it will be shaked, baked and tested to the extreme.”

Lessons learned will be applied to the first flight test models of the Starliner. Some of those parts have already arrived at KSC and are “in the manufacturing flow in Florida.”

“Our team is initiating qualification testing on dozens of components and preparing to assemble flight hardware,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Commercial Programs, in a statement. “These are the first steps in an incredibly exciting, important and challenging year.”

View of lower dome of the first Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crew  spaceship under assembly at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and known as the Structural Test Article (STA), with many strain gauges installed.  The Starliner STA is being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) manufacturing facility at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
View of lower dome of the first Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crew spaceship under assembly at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and known as the Structural Test Article (STA), with many strain gauges installed. The Starliner STA is being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) manufacturing facility at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

SpaceX has announced plans to launch their first crew Dragon test flight before the end of 2017.

But the launch schedules for both Boeing and SpaceX are subject to review, dependent on satisfactorily achieving all agreed to milestones under the CCP contracts and approval by NASA, and can change at any time. So additional schedule alternations are not unexpected.

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 four or more 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

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

Ken Kremer

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

SpaceX Crew Dragon Conducts Propulsive Hover and Parachute Drop Tests; Videos

SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle, powered by eight SuperDraco engines, conducts propulsive hover test at the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle, powered by eight SuperDraco engines, conducts propulsive hover test at the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. Credit: SpaceX

On the road to restoring US Human spaceflight from US soil, SpaceX conducted a pair of key tests involving a propulsive hover test and parachute drop test for their Crew Dragon vehicle which is slated to begin human missions in 2017.

SpaceX released a short video showing the Dragon 2 vehicle executing a “picture-perfect propulsive hover test” on a test stand at the firms rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.

The video published last week shows the Dragon 2 simultaneously firing all eight of its side mounted SuperDraco engines, during a five second test carried out on Nov. 22, 2015.

Using the SuperDragos will eventually enable pinpoint propulsive soft landings like a helicopter in place of parachute assisted landings in the ocean or on the ground.

The video clip seen below includes both full speed and slow motion versions of the test, showing the vehicle rising and descending slowly on the test stand.

Video caption: SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle, powered by eight SuperDraco engines, conducts propulsive hover test firing at rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.

The eight SuperDraco thrusters are mounted in sets 90 degrees apart around the perimeter of the vehicle in pairs called “jet packs.”

The SuperDracos generate a combined total of 33,000 lbs of thrust.

SpaceX is developing the Crew Dragon under the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) awarded by NASA to transport crews of four or more astronauts to the International Space Station.

“This test was the second of a two-part milestone under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program,” said SpaceX officials. “The first test—a short firing of the engines intended to verify a healthy propulsion system—was completed November 22, and the longer burn two-days later demonstrated vehicle control while hovering.”

The first unmanned and manned orbital test flights of the crew Dragon are expected sometime in 2017. A crew of two NASA astronauts should fly on the first crewed test before the end of 2017.

Parachute drop test for SpaceX crew Dragon involving  four red-and-white parachutes unfurled from a mass simulator high above the desert near Coolidge, Arizona. Credit NASA/SpaceX
Parachute drop test for SpaceX crew Dragon involving four red-and-white parachutes unfurled from a mass simulator high above the desert near Coolidge, Arizona. Credit NASA/SpaceX

Initially, the Crew Dragon will land via parachutes in the ocean before advancing to use of pinpoint propulsive landing.

Thus SpaceX recently conducted a parachute drop test involving deployment of four red-and-white parachutes unfurling high above the desert near Coolidge, Arizona using a mass simulator in place of the capsule.

Video Caption: SpaceX performed a successful test of its parachute system for the Crew Dragon spacecraft near Coolidge, Arizona, as part of its final development and certification work with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Using a weight simulant in the place of a boilerplate spacecraft, four main parachutes were rigged to deploy just as they would when the Crew Dragon returns to Earth with astronauts aboard. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

“The mass simulator and parachutes were released thousands of feet above the ground from a C-130 cargo aircraft. This test evaluated the four main parachutes, but did not include the drogue chutes that a full landing system would utilize,” said NASA.

Since the CCP program finally received full funding from Congress in the recently passed Fiscal Year 2016 NASA budget, the program is currently on track to achieve the orbital test flight milestones.

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 Starliner CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut transporters under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

The Crew Dragon will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The historic launch pad has been leased by SpaceX from NASA and is being refurbished for launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

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

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

Ken Kremer

Dream Chaser Spaceplane Gets ‘GO’ as NASA Awards Trio of Space Station Cargo Contracts

SNC's Dream Chaser Spacecraft and Cargo Module attached to the ISS. Credit: SNC
SNC’s Dream Chaser Spacecraft and Cargo Module attached to the ISS. Credit: SNC

A shuttle will soar again from American soil before this decade is out, following NASA’s announcement today (Jan 14) that an unmanned version of the Dream Chaser spaceplane was among the trio of US awardees winning commercial contracts to ship essential cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) starting in 2019.

In addition to the Dream Chaser mini-shuttle built by Sierra Nevada Corporation of Sparks, Nevada, NASA decided to retain both of the current ISS commercial cargo vehicle providers, namely the Cygnus from Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia and the cargo Dragon from SpaceX of Hawthorne, California. Continue reading “Dream Chaser Spaceplane Gets ‘GO’ as NASA Awards Trio of Space Station Cargo Contracts”

Buildup Of First Boeing Starliner Crew Vehicle Ramps Up at Kennedy Space Center

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Buildup of the first of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew spaceships is ramping up at the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) – the new spacecraft manufacturing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

In less than two years time Boeing Starliners will start launching NASA astronauts to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) atop Atlas V rockets from Florida. Continue reading “Buildup Of First Boeing Starliner Crew Vehicle Ramps Up at Kennedy Space Center”

‘A City on Mars’ is Elon Musk’s Ultimate Goal Enabled by Rocket Reuse Technology

Elon Musk’s dream and ultimate goal of establishing a permanent human presence on the Red Planet in the form of “A City on Mars” took a gigantic step forward with the game changing rocket landing and recovery technology vividly demonstrated by his firm’s Falcon 9 booster this past Monday, Dec. 21 – following a successful blastoff from the Florida space coast just minutes earlier on the first SpaceX launch since a catastrophic mid-air calamity six months ago.

“I think this was a critical step along the way towards being able to establish a city on Mars,” said SpaceX billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk at a media telecon shortly after Monday night’s (Dec. 21) launch and upright landing of the Falcon 9 rockets first stage on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Continue reading “‘A City on Mars’ is Elon Musk’s Ultimate Goal Enabled by Rocket Reuse Technology”

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

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

Faulty Support Strut Likely Caused SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Failure: Elon Musk

The in-flight failure of a critical support strut inside the second stage liquid oxygen tank holding a high pressure helium tank in the Falcon 9 rocket, is the likely cause of the failed SpaceX launch three weeks ago on June 28, revealed SpaceX CEO and chief designer Elon Musk during a briefing for reporters held today, July 20, to explain why the critical cargo delivery run for NASA to the space station suddenly turned into a total disaster after a promising start.

The commercial booster and its cargo Dragon payload were unexpectedly destroyed by an overpressure event 139 seconds after a picture perfect blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28 at 10:21 a.m. EDT.

Musk emphasized that the failure analysis is still “preliminary” and an “initial assessment” based on the investigation thus far. SpaceX has led the investigation efforts under the oversight of the FAA with participation from prime customers NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

The root cause appears to be that the second stage strut holding the high pressure helium tank inside the 2nd stage broke at a bolt – far below its design specification and thereby allowing the tank to break free and swing away.

“The strut that we believe failed was designed and certified to handle 10,000 lbs of force, but failed at 2,000 lbs, a five-fold difference,” Musk explained.

“During acceleration of the rocket to 3.2 G’s, the strut holding down the helium tank failed. Helium was released, causing the over pressurization event.”

To date no other issues have been identified as possible failure modes, Musk elaborated.

The helium tanks are pressurized to 5500 psi and were breached during the over pressurization. The purpose of the helium tanks is to pressurize the first and second stage propellant tanks.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“We tested several hundred struts. On the outside they looked normal. But inside there was a problem,” Musk explained

“Detailed close-out photos of stage construction show no visible flaws or damage of any kind,” according to a SpaceX statement.

The struts are produced by an outside vendor that Musk would not identify. He added that in the future, SpaceX will likely choose a different vendor to manufacture the struts.

He said the struts were made from a type of stainless steel and would also likely be redesigned.

“The material of construction will be changed to Inconel,” Musk told me in response to a question.

Hundreds of the original type struts have been used to date on the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 with no issues. In the future, they will also be independently certified for use, by an outside contractor instead of the vendor.

The nine first stage Merlin 1D engines of the Falcon 9 were still firing nominally during the start of the mishap, said Musk. The first stage had nearly completed its planned firing duration when the explosion took place.

“The event happened very quickly, within 0.893 seconds,” Musk stated, from the first indication of an issue to loss of all telemetry.

“Preliminary analysis suggests the overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank was initiated by a flawed piece of support hardware (a “strut”) inside the second stage,” noted SpaceX in a statement.

Video caption: Launch video of the CRS-7 launch on June 28, 2015 from a remote camera placed at Launch Complex 40. The launch would fail around two minutes later. Credit: Alex Polimeni/Spaceflight Now

The blastoff of the Dragon CRS-7 cargo mission for NASA was the first failure of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket after 18 straight successes and the firms first launch mishap since the failure of a Falcon 1 in 2008.

The SpaceX CRS-7 Dragon was loaded with over 4,000 pounds (1987 kg) of research experiments, an EVA spacesuit, water filtration equipment, spare parts, gear, computer equipment, high pressure tanks of oxygen and nitrogen supply gases, food, water and clothing for the astronaut and cosmonaut crews comprising Expeditions 44 and 45.

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

The Dragon cargo freighter survived the explosion but was destroyed when it impacted the Atlantic Ocean.

“But the Dragon might have been saved if the parachutes had been deployed,” said Musk.

Unfortunately the software required to deploy the parachute was not loaded onboard.

“The new software required to deploy the parachutes will be included on all future Dragons, V1 and V2,” said Musk, referring to the cargo and crew versions of the SpaceX Dragon spaceship.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply spaceship explode about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply spaceship explode about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The NASA cargo was valued at about $110 million. The launch itself was not insured.

The investigation board is reviewing data from over 3,000 telemetry channels as well as video and physical debris, he noted.

The next launch of a Falcon 9 will be postponed at least a few months until “no earlier than September” Musk indicated.

Two Falcon 9 launches had been set for August from Vandenberg AFB and Cape Canaveral. And the next launch to the ISS had been slated for September on the Dragon CRS-8 mission.

Musk said the next payload to be launched aboard a Falcon 9 has yet to be determined.

Starting in 2017, the Falcon 9 will launch astronauts to the ISS aboard the Crew Dragon.

Overall CRS-7 was the seventh SpaceX commercial resupply services mission and the eighth trip by a Dragon spacecraft to the station since 2012.

CRS-7 marked the company’s seventh operational resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the station during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016 under NASA’s original Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

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

Ken Kremer

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 prior SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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Learn more about SpaceX, ULA, Mars rovers, Orion, Antares, MMS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

July 21/22: “SpaceX, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, MMS, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings/afternoon for July 22 Delta IV launch of USAF WGS-7 satellite