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

Cause of SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Failure Unknown; Launch Explosion Photos

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
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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The root cause of Sundays (June 28) devastating launch failure of the commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is “still unknown” says SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk, following the loss of the NASA contracted resupply mission carrying crucial gear and research experiments to the crew serving aboard the Earth orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

Meanwhile, search and recovery teams from SpaceX and the Coast Guard are scouring the ocean and beaches along the Florida Space Coast for any signs of potentially dangerous Falcon rocket debris that rained down from the sky into the Atlantic Ocean after the sudden explosion unexpectedly destroyed the vehicle barely two minutes after a sun drenched liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 10:21 a.m. EDT.

All appeared normal as the Falcon 9 booster and Dragon resupply spaceship were streaking skywards through majestically blue Florida skies when catastrophe struck at approximately 148 seconds after blastoff and the rocket exploded violently- utterly destroying the rocket ship and its two ton load of critical supplies heading to the astronauts and cosmonauts living on board the ISS.

The upper stage appeared to break up in flight as the nine first stage Merlin 1D engines were firing as planned and the rocket was arcing over.

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

But why that happened and the vehicle disintegrated in mere seconds is still a mystery which will take some time to resolve.

“Cause still unknown after several thousand engineering-hours of review. Now parsing data with a hex editor to recover final milliseconds,” tweeted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

Although the cause is unknown, Musk also announced that the failure might be related to a problem with the Falcon 9 upper stage. since the first stage engines were still firing as planned.

“There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause,” tweeted Musk.

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

The rocket was traveling about 5000 km/h at an altitude of 45 kilometers at the time of the mishap.

“Falcon 9 experienced a problem shortly before first stage shutdown. Will provide more info as soon as we review the data,” tweeted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk soon after the explosion.

The pressurized section of the Dragon was packed with over 4,000 pounds of research experiments, spare parts, gear, high pressure supply gases, food, water and clothing for the astronaut and cosmonaut crews comprising Expeditions 44 and 45 on the ISS.

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

Sunday’s launch was the 19th launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and the first failure after 18 straight successes.

SpaceX formed a failure investigation board immediately following the launch failure of the SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services 7 (CRS-7) mission bound for the ISS. The FAA and NASA will assist in the investigation.

The launch was the sixth for SpaceX this year, which had been picking up its launch pace dramatically compared to 2014.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded shortly after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded shortly after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It was the third launch failure of a cargo delivery run to the space station in the past half year -including both American and Russian rockets.

The Orbital Sciences Antares/Cygnus Orb 3 mission exploded in a massive an frightening fireball on October 28, 2014 which I witnessed from the press site from NASA Wallops in Virginia.

The Russian Soyuz/Progress 59 mission failed after the cargo vessel separated from the booster rockets third stage and spun wildly out of control in April 2015 and eventually crashed.

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

Myself and other members of the media were watching and photographing the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from atop the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) when the launch mishap occurred.

See a galley of my launch failure explosion photos herein.

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

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of the CRS-7 launch from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

First stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket appears to explode moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
First stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket appears to explode moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

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