In 2014, NASA contracted two major aerospace companies (Boeing and SpaceX) to help them restore domestic launch capability to the United States. As part of the Commercial Crew Program (CCE), Boeing and SpaceX developed the CST-100 Starliner the Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively. But whereas the Crew Dragon finished testing and even carried astronauts to the ISS, the Starliner met with some problems.
During its first uncrewed test flight – Orbital Flight Test-1 (OFT-1) – in December 2019, the Starliner experienced some failures that prevented it from docking with the ISS. After a thorough investigation, the joint NASA-Boeing Independent Review team has completed its final assessment and identified 80 areas where corrections need to be made before the Starliner can conduct another orbital flight test.
With the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has become dependent on its Russian counterparts to send and return astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Hoping to restore domestic launch capability to American soil, NASA has contracted with aerospace developers like SpaceX and Boeing to develop crew-capable spacecraft, as part of their Commercial Crew Program (CCP).
After years of development, Boeing managed to get their CST-100 Starliner ready for its first uncrewed test flight on December 20th, 2019. Unfortunately, a hiccup occurred during the mission that prevented the spacecraft docking with the ISS. After an independent review of the mission, NASA and Boeing have determined that 61 corrective actions need to be taken before the Starliner can fly again.
In 2014, Boeing was awarded a contract through NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program to provide commercial launch services to the International Space Station (ISS). To this end, they have been busy developing the CST-100 Starliner, a space capsule that will be able to deliver cargo and crews of up to 7 astronauts to the ISS. On December 20th, 2019, the Starliner passed a major milestone when it conducted an uncrewed test.
While an error prevented this Starliner (designated Calypso) from docking with the ISS as planned, the space capsule still managed to make it to space and land safely near White Sands, New Mexico. This makes it the first crew capsule to touchdown on land in the United States. To celebrate this accomplishment, Boeing recently released a highlight reel of footage taken by cameras inside the Calypso during the flight test.
For years, NASA has been working to restore domestic launch capability to the US and send astronauts to the Moon and beyond. A crucial part of this is the development of next-generation crew capsules that can carry crews and payloads to space. These include Lockheed Martin’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and the Crew Space Transportation (CST) -100 Starliner currently being developed by Boeing.
Earlier today (on Monday, Nov. 4th), the CST-100 passed a critical milestone with a successful end-to-end test of its abort system. The Pad Abort Test took place at Launch Complex 32 at the US Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. When crewed missions to space begin using the CST-100, this system will ensure that astronauts will be carried to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency before liftoff.
Boeing has unveiled the advanced new lightweight spacesuits that astronauts will sport as passengers aboard the company’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi during commercial taxi journey’s to and from and the International Space Station (ISS) and other low Earth orbit destinations.
The signature ‘Boeing Blue’ spacesuits will be much lighter, as well as more flexible and comfortable compared to earlier generations of spacesuits worn by America’s astronauts over more than five decades of human spaceflight, starting with the Mercury capsule to the latest gear worn by Space Shuttle astronauts.
“The suit capitalizes on historical designs, meets NASA requirements for safety and functionality, and introduces cutting-edge innovations,” say NASA officials.
The suits protect the astronauts during both launch and reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere during the return home.
Indeed, Chris Ferguson, a former NASA Space Shuttle Commander who now works for Boeing as a Starliner program director, helped reveal the ‘Boeing Blue’ spacesuits during a Facebook live event, where he modeled the new suit.
“We slogged through some of the real engineering challenges and now we are getting to the point where those challenges are largely behind us and it’s time to get on to the rubber meeting the road,” Ferguson said.
The suits offer superior functionality, comfort and protection for astronauts who will don them when crewed Starliner flights to the space station begin as soon as next year.
At roughly half the weight (about 10 pounds vs. 20 pounds) compared to the launch-and-entry suits worn by space shuttle astronauts, crews look forward to wearing the ‘Boeing Blue’ suits.
“Spacesuits have come in different sizes and shapes and designs, and I think this fits the Boeing model, fits the Boeing vehicle,” said Chris Ferguson.
Among the advances cited are:
• Lighter and more flexible through use of advanced materials and new joint patterns
• Helmet and visor incorporated into the suit instead of detachable. The suit’s hood-like soft helmet sports a wide polycarbonate visor to give Starliner passengers better peripheral vision throughout their ride to and from space.
• A communications headset within the helmet also helps connect astronauts to ground and space crews
• Touchscreen-sensitive gloves that allow astronauts to interact with the capsule’s tablets screens overhead
• Vents that allow astronauts to be cooler, but can still pressurize the suit immediately
• Breathable, slip resistant boots
• Zippers in the torso area will make it easier for astronauts to comfortably transition from sitting to standing
• Innovative layers will keep astronauts cooler
“The most important part is that the suit will keep you alive,” astronaut Eric Boe said, in a statement. “It is a lot lighter, more form-fitting and it’s simpler, which is always a good thing. Complicated systems have more ways they can break, so simple is better on something like this.”
The astronauts help the designers to perfect the suits very practically by wearing them inside Starliner mock-ups, moving around to accomplish tasks, reaching for the tablets screens, and climbing in and out of the capsule repeatedly, says Boe “so they can establish the best ways for astronauts to work inside the spacecraft’s confines.”
“The spacesuit acts as the emergency backup to the spacecraft’s redundant life support systems,” said Richard Watson, subsystem manager for spacesuits for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
“If everything goes perfectly on a mission, then you don’t need a spacesuit. It’s like having a fire extinguisher close by in the cockpit. You need it to be effective if it is needed.”
Boe is one of four NASA astronauts that form the core cadre of astronauts training for the initial flight tests aboard either the Boeing Starliner or SpaceX Crew Dragon now under development as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program.
The inaugural flight tests are slated to begin in 2018 under contract to NASA.
The procedure on launch day will be similar to earlier manned launches. For Starliner, however, the capsule will launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket – currently being man-rated.
Astronauts will don the new ‘Boeing Blue’ suit in the historic Crew Quarters. The will ride out to the rocket inside an astrovan. After reaching Space Launch Complex 41, they will take the elevator up, stride across the recently installed Crew Access Arm and board Starliner as it stands atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
The first test flight will carry a crew of two. Soon thereafter the crew size will grow to four when regular crew rotation flights to the ISS starting as soon as 2019.
“To me, it’s a very tangible sign that we are really moving forward and we are a lot closer than we’ve been,” Ferguson said. “The next time we pull all this together, it might be when astronauts are climbing into the actual spacecraft.”
Boeing is currently manufacturing the Starliner spacecraft at the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
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.
“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).
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
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.
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]
“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 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 ridesto the space station.
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 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.
“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.”
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 ,” 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.
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.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Fierce commercial and international political pressures have forced the rapid development of the new Vulcan launcher family recently announced by rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA). Vulcan’s “genesis” and development was borne of multiple unrelenting forces on ULA and is now absolutely essential and critical for its “transformation and survival in a competitive environment” moving forward, according to Dr. George Sowers, ULA Vice President for Advanced Concepts and Technology, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.
“To be successful and survive ULA needs to transform to be more of a competitive company in a competitive environment,” Dr. Sowers told Universe Today in a wide ranging interview regarding the rationale and goals of the Vulcan rocket.
Vulcan is ULA’s next generation rocket to space and slated for an inaugural liftoff in 2019.
Faced with the combined challenges of a completely changed business and political environment emanating powerfully from new space upstart SpaceX offering significantly reduced launch costs, and continuing uncertainty over the future supply of the Russian-made RD-180 workhorse rocket engines that power ULA’s venerable Atlas V rocket, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Sowers and ULA’s new CEO Tory Bruno were tasked with rapidly resolving these twin threats to the firms future well being – which also significantly impacts directly on America’s national security.
“Our current plan is to have the new Vulcan rocket flying by 2019,” Sowers stated.
The Vulcan launcher was created in response to the commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and it will combine the best features of ULA’s existing unmanned Atlas V and Delta IV booster product lines as well as being revamped with new and innovative American-made first stage engines that will eventually be reusable.
“We at ULA were faced with how do we take our existing products and transform them into a single fleet that enables us to do the entire range of missions on just one family of rockets.”
“So that was really the genesis of what we now call the “Vulcan” rocket. So this single family will be able to do everything [from medium to heavy lift],” Sowers told me.
Another requirement is that Vulcan’s manufacturing methodology be extremely efficient, slashing costs to make it cost competitive with the Space X Falcon 9. Sowers said the launcher would sell “for less than $100 million” at the base level.
“Vulcan will be the highest-performing, most cost-efficient rocket on the market. It will open up new opportunities for the nation’s use of space,” says ULA CEO Tory Bruno.
In its initial configuration Vulcan’s first stage will be powered by a revolutionary new class of cost effective and wholly domestic engines dubbed the BE-4, produced by Blue Origin.
Further upgrades including a powerful new upper stage called ACES, will be phased in down the road as launches of ULA’s existing rocket families wind down, to alleviate any schedule slips.
“Because rocket design is hard and the rocket business is tough we are planning an overlap period between our existing rockets and the new Vulcan rocket,” Sowers explained. “That will account for any delays in development and other issues in the transition process to the new rocket.”
ULA was formed in 2006 as a 50:50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that combined their existing expendable rocket fleet families – the Atlas V and Delta IV – under one roof.
Development of the two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV’s) was originally funded by the U.S. Air Force to provide two independent and complimentary launch capabilities thereby offering assured access to space for America’s most critical military reconnaissance satellites gathering intelligence for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), DOD and the most senior US military and government leaders.
Since 2006, SpaceX (founded by billionaire Elon Musk) has emerged on the space scene as a potent rival offering significantly lower cost launches compared to ULA and other launch providers in the US and overseas – and captured a significant and growing share of the international launch market for its American-made Falcon rocket family.
And last year to top that all off, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of space and defense industries, threatened to “ban Washington from using Russian-made [RD-180] rocket engines [used in the Atlas V rocket], which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit.”
“ULA was formed eight years ago as a government regulated monopoly focused on US government launches. Now eight years later the environment is changing,” Sowers told me.
How did ULA respond to the commercial and political challenges and transform?
“So there are a lot of things we had to do structurally to make that transformation. One of the key ones is that when ULA was formed, the government was very concerned about having assured access to space for national security launches,” Sowers explained.
“In their mind that meant having two independent rocket systems that could essentially do the same jobs. So we have both the Atlas V and the Delta IV. But in a competitive environment you can well imagine that that requirement drives your costs significantly higher than they need to be.”
ULA actually offered three rocket families after the merger, when only one was really needed.
“So our first conclusion on how to be competitive was how do we go from supporting three rocket families – including the Delta II – off of 6 launch pads, to our ultimate aim of getting down to just 1 rocket family of off just 2 pads – one on each coast. So, that is the most cost effective structure that we could come up with and the most competitive.”
Developing a new first stage engine not subject to international tensions was another primary impetus.
“The other big objective that was always in our minds, but that became much higher priority in April 2014 when Russia decided to annex Crimea, is that the RD-180 rocket engine that became our workhorse on Atlas, now became politically untenable.”
“So the other main objective of Vulcan is to re-engine [the first stage of] our fleet with an American engine, the Blue Origin BE-4.”
The RD-180’s will be replaced with a pair of BE-4 engines from Blue Origin, the highly secretive aerospace firm founded by Jeff Bezos, billionaire founder of Amazon. The revolutionary BE-4 engines are fueled by liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen and will produce about 1.1 million pounds of thrust vs. about 900,000 pounds of thrust for the RD-180, a significant enhancement in thrust.
“The Blue Origin BE-4 is the primary engine [for Vulcan]. ULA is co-investing with Blue Origin in that engine.”
Although the BE-4 is ULA’s primary choice to replace the RD-180, ULA is also investing in development of a backup engine, the AR-1 from Aerojet-Rocketdyne, in case the BE-4 faces unexpected delays.
“As I said, rocket development is hard and risky. So we have a backup plan. That is with Aerojet-Rocketdyne and their AR-1. And we are investing in that engine as well.”
More on the Vulcan, BE-4, reusability and more upcoming in part 2.
Meanwhile, the next commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 is due to blastoff this Sunday, June 28, on the Dragon CRS-7 resupply mission to the ISS.
Watch for my onsite reports from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.