Boeing Commercial Space Taxi and Atlas V Launcher Move Closer to Blastoff

The next time that American astronauts launch to space from American soil it will surely be aboard one of the new commercially built “space taxis” currently under development by a trio of American aerospace firms – Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp – enabled by seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Boeing has moved considerably closer towards regaining America’s lost capability to launch humans to space when the firm’s privately built CST-100 crew capsule achieved two key new milestones on the path to blastoff from Florida’s Space Coast.

The CST-100 capsule is designed to carry a crew of up to 7 astronauts on missions to low-Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS) around the middle of this decade.

Boeing CST-100 crew vehicle docks at the ISS. Credit: Boeing
Boeing CST-100 crew vehicle docks at the ISS. Credit: Boeing

Boeing’s crew transporter will fly to space atop the venerable Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) from Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The Boeing and ULA teams recently completed the first wind tunnel tests of a 7 percent scale model of the integrated capsule and Atlas V rocket (photo above) as well as thrust tests of the modified Centaur upper stage.

The work is being done under the auspices of NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative, intended to make commercial human spaceflight services available for both US government and commercial customers, such as the proposed Bigelow Aerospace mini space station.

Boeing CST-100 capsule mock-up, interior view. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing CST-100 capsule mock-up, interior view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Since its maiden liftoff in 2002, the ULA Atlas V rocket has flawlessly launched numerous multi-billion dollar NASA planetary science missions like the Curiosity Mars rover, Juno Jupiter orbiter and New Horizons mission to Pluto as well as a plethora of top secret Air Force spy satellites.

But the two stage Atlas V has never before been used to launch humans to space – therefore necessitating rigorous testing and upgrades to qualify the entire vehicle and both stages to meet stringent human rating requirements.

“The Centaur has a long and storied past of launching the agency’s most successful spacecraft to other worlds,” said Ed Mango, NASA’s CCP manager at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Because it has never been used for human spaceflight before, these tests are critical to ensuring a smooth and safe performance for the crew members who will be riding atop the human-rated Atlas V.”

The combined scale model CST-100 capsule and complete Atlas V rocket were evaluated for two months of testing this spring inside an 11- foot diameter transonic wind tunnel at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

“The CST-100 and Atlas V, connected with the launch vehicle adaptor, performed exactly as expected and confirmed our expectations of how they will perform together in flight,” said John Mulholland, Boeing vice president and program manager for Commercial Programs.

Testing of the Centaur stage centered on characterizing the flow of liquid oxygen from the oxygen tank through the liquid oxygen-feed duct line into the pair of RL-10 engines where the propellant is mixed with liquid hydrogen and burned to create thrust to propel the CST-100 into orbit.

Boeing is aiming for an initial three day manned orbital test flight of the CST-100 during 2016, says Mulholland.

Artist's concept shows Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft separating from the first stage of its launch vehicle, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, following liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Boeing
Artist’s concept shows Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft separating from the first stage of its launch vehicle, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, following liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Boeing

But that date is dependent on funding from NASA and could easily be delayed by the ongoing sequester which has slashed NASA’s and all Federal budgets.

Chris Ferguson, the commander of the final shuttle flight (STS-135) by Atlantis, is leading Boeing’s flight test effort.

Boeing has leased one of NASA’s Orbiter Processing Facility hangers (OPF-3) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for the manufacturing and assembly of its CST-100 spacecraft.

Mulholland told me previously that Boeing will ‘cut metal’ soon. “Our first piece of flight design hardware will be delivered to KSC and OPF-3 around mid 2013.”

NASA’s CCP program is fostering the development of the CST-100 as well as the SpaceX Dragon and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser to replace the crew capability of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters.

The Atlas V will also serve as the launcher for the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser space taxi.

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet in 2011, US and partner astronauts have been 100% reliant on the Russians to hitch a ride to the ISS aboard the Soyuz capsules – at a price tag exceeding $60 Million per seat.

Simultaneously on a parallel track NASA is developing the Orion crew capsule and SLS heavy lift booster to send humans to the Moon and deep space destinations including Asteroids and Mars.

And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Conjunctions, Mars, Curiosity, Opportunity, MAVEN, LADEE and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations:

June 4: “Send your Name to Mars” and “CIBER Astro Sat, LADEE Lunar & Antares ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, 8:30 PM

June 11: “Send your Name to Mars” and “LADEE Lunar & Antares ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; NJ State Museum Planetarium and Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP), Trenton, NJ, 730 PM.

June 12: “Send your Name to Mars” and “LADEE Lunar & Antares ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Franklin Institute and Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Philadelphia, PA, 8 PM.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory  (MSL) rover blasts off for Mars atop a stunningly beautiful Atlas V  rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 at 10:02 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Florida.   United Launch Alliance (ULA) is now upgrading the Atlas V to launch humans aboard the Boeing CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser space taxis. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover blasts off for Mars atop a stunningly beautiful Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 at 10:02 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Florida. United Launch Alliance (ULA) is now upgrading the Atlas V to launch humans aboard the Boeing CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser space taxis. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
The CST-100 spacecraft awaits liftoff aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle in this artist's concept. Credit: Boeing
The CST-100 spacecraft awaits liftoff aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle in this artist’s concept. Credit: Boeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3754a_SpaceX launch May 22 2012_Ken Kremer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_9198a_Boeing CST_Ken Kremer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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Caption: Dream Chaser awaits launch atop Atlas V rocket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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