Musk Says Maiden Falcon Heavy to Launch in November, Acknowledges High Risk and Releases New Animation

SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket poised for launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in this artists concept. Credit: SpaceX

Before the year is out, the long awaited debut launch of the triple barreled Falcon Heavy rocket may at last be in sight says SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk, as he forthrightly acknowledges it comes with high risk and released a stunning launch and landing animation earlier today, Aug. 4.

After years of painstaking development and delays, the inaugural blastoff of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy is currently slated for November 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, according to Musk.

“Falcon Heavy maiden launch this November,” SpaceX CEO and billionaire founder Elon Musk tweeted last week.

“Lot that can go wrong in the November launch …,” Musk said today on Instagram, downplaying the chances of complete success.

And to whet the appetites of space enthusiasts worldwide, just today Musk also published a one minute long draft animation illustrating the Falcon Heavy triple booster launch and how the individual landings of the trio of first stage booster cores will take place – nearly simultaneously.

Video Caption: SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch from KSC pad 39A pad and first stage booster landings. Credit: SpaceX

“Side booster rockets return to Cape Canaveral,” explains Musk on twitter. “Center lands on droneship.”

The two side boosters will be recycled from prior Falcon 9 launches and make precision guided propulsive, upright ground soft landings back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Each booster is outfitted with a quartet of grid fins and landing legs. The center core is newly built and heavily modified.

“Sides run high thrust, center is lower thrust until sides separate & fly back. Center then throttles up, keeps burning & lands on droneship. If we’re lucky!” Musk elaborated.

The center booster will touch down on an ocean going droneship prepositioned in the Atlantic Ocean some 400 miles (600 km) off of Florida’s east coast.

To date SpaceX first stages from KSC launches have touched down either on land at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) at the Cape or at sea on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship barge (OCISLY).

The launch of the extremely complicated Falcon Heavy booster with 27 first stage Merlin 1D engines also comes associated with a huge risk – and he hopes that it at least rises far enough off the ground to minimize the chances of damage to the historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

“There’s a lot of risk associated with Falcon Heavy, a real good chance that that vehicle does not make it to orbit,” Musk said recently while speaking at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, D.C. on July 19.

“I want to make sure to set expectations accordingly. I hope it makes it far enough beyond the pad so that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”

Musk originally proposed the Falcon Heavy in 2011 and targeted a maiden mission in 2013.

Whenever it does launch, the Falcon Heavy will become the world’s most powerful rocket.

“I think Falcon Heavy is going to be a great vehicle,” Musk stated. “There’s just so much that’s really impossible to test on the ground, and we’ll do our best.

“Falcon Heavy requires the simultaneous ignition of 27 orbit-class engines. There’s a lot that can go wrong there.”

Designing and building Falcon Heavy has proven to be far more difficult than Musk ever imagined, and the center booster had to be significantly redesigned.

“It actually ended up being way harder to do Falcon Heavy than we thought,” Musk explained.

“At first it sounds real easy! You just stick two first stages on as strap-on boosters. How hard can that be?” But then everything changes. All the loads change, aerodynamics totally change. You’ve tripled the vibration and acoustics. You sort of break the qualification levels on so much of the hardware.”

“The amount of load you’re putting through that center core is crazy because you’ve got two super-powerful boosters also shoving that center core. So we had to redesign the whole center core airframe,” Musk added. “It’s not like the Falcon 9 – because it’s got to take so much load. Then you’ve got separation systems.”

Due to the high risk, there will be no payload from a paying customer housed inside the nose cone atop the center core. Only a dummy payload will be installed on the maiden mission.

However future Falcon Heavy missions have been manifested with commercial and science payloads.

Musk also hopes to launch a pair of paying private astronauts on a trip around the Moon and back as soon as 2018 while journeying inside a Crew Dragon spacecraft with the Falcon Heavy – similar to what his company is developing for NASA for commercial ferry missions to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS).

Falcon Heavy will blast off with about twice the thrust of the Delta IV Heavy, currently the worlds most powerful rocket. The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy (D4H) has been the world’s mightiest rocket since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles in 2011.

The Falcon Heavy sports about 2/3 the liftoff thrust of NASA’s Saturn V manned moon landing rockets – last launched in the 1970s.

SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Intelsat 35e – 4th next gen ‘Epic’ TV and mobile broadband comsat for Intelsat – on July 5, 2017 at 7:38 p.m. EDT from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Falcon Heavy is comprised of three Falcon 9 cores. The Delta IV Heavy is comprised of three Delta Common Core Boosters.

The combined trio of Falcon 9 cores will generate about 5.1 million pounds of liftoff thrust upon ignition from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“With the ability to lift into orbit over 54 metric tons (119,000 lb)–a mass equivalent to a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel–Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, at one-third the cost,” according to the SpaceX website.

“The nice thing is when you fully optimize it, it’s about two-and-a-half times the payload capability of a Falcon 9,” Musk notes. “It’s well over 100,000 pounds to LEO of payload capability, 50 tons. It can even get up a little higher than that if optimized.”

ULA Delta 4 Heavy rocket delivers NROL-37 spy satellite to orbit on June 11, 2016 from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The two stage Falcon Heavy stands more than 229.6 feet (70 meters) tall and is 39.9 feet wide (12.2 meters).

It weighs more than 3.1 million pounds (1.4 million kilograms).

Like the Falcon 9 it will be fueled with liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene propellants.

The thunder, power and roar of over 5 million pounds of liftoff thrust from the Falcon Heavy’s 27 engines is absolutely certain to be a thrilling, earth-shaking space spectacular !! Thus placing it in a class of its own unlike any US launch since NASA’s Saturn V and Space Shuttles rocketed to the high frontier from the same pad.

“I encourage people to come down to the Cape to see the first Falcon Heavy mission,” Musk said. “It’s guaranteed to be exciting.”

But before the Falcon Heavy can actually be rolled up to launch position at pad 39A, SpaceX must first complete repairs and refurbishment to nearby pad 40.

That Cape pad was heavily damaged nearly a year ago during a catastrophic launch pad explosion that took place in Sept. 2016 during a routine prelaunch fueling and static fire engine test of a Falcon 9 rocket with the Amos-6 commercial comsat payload bolted on top.

Pad 40 must achieve operational launch status again before SpaceX can commit to the Falcon Heavy launches at Pad 39A. Workers will also need to finish construction work at pad 39A to support the Heavy launches.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster deploys quartet of landing legs moments before precision propulsive ground touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Canaveral Air Force Station barely nine minutes after liftoff from Launch Complex 39A on 3 June 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Dragon CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

To date SpaceX has successfully demonstrated the recovery of thirteen boosters by land and sea.

Furthermore SpaceX engineers have advanced to the next step and successfully recycled, reflown and relaunched two ‘flight-proven first stages this year in March and June of 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida involving the SES-10 and BulgariaSat-1 launches respectively.

SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk and SES CTO Martin Halliwell exuberantly shake hands of congratulation following the successful delivery of SES-10 TV comsat to orbit using the first reflown and flight proven booster in world history at the March 30, 2017 post launch media briefing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The next SpaceX Falcon 9 launch is slated for Aug. 13 on the NASA contracted CRS-12 resupply mission to the ISS.

Watch for Ken’s onsite space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

SpaceX Falcon 9 Booster leaning atop OCISLY droneship upon which it landed after 23 June launch from KSC floats into Port Canaveral, FL, on 29 June 2017, hauled by tugboat as seen from Jetty Park Pier. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida- as seen from the crawlerway. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA Orders Additional Astronaut Taxi Flights from Boeing and SpaceX to the ISS

Boeing and SpaceX commercial crew vehicles ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in this artists concept. Credit: NASA

In a significant step towards restoring America’s indigenous human spaceflight capability and fostering the new era of commercial space fight, NASA has awarded a slew of additional astronaut taxi flights from Boeing and SpaceX to carry crews to the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA’s new announcement entails awarding an additional four crew rotation missions each to commercial partners, Boeing and SpaceX, on top of the two demonstration fights previously awarded to each company under the agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) initiative, in a Jan. 3 statement.

However, the newly awarded crew rotation missions will only take place after NASA has certified that each provider is fully and satisfactorily meeting NASA’s long list of stringent safety and reliability requirements to ensure the private missions will be safe to fly with humans aboard from NASA and its partner entities.

And NASA officials were careful to point out that these orders “do not include payments at this time.”

In other words, NASA will pay for performance, not mere promises of performance – because human lives are on the line.

“They fall under the current Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contracts, and bring the total number of missions awarded to each provider to six,” NASA officials announced.

Hull of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article (STA)- the first Starliner to be built in the company’s modernized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The goal of the CCP program is to ensure robust and reliable crew transportation to the International Space Station in this decade and beyond – using American rockets and capsules launching from American soil.

A further goal is to end America’s sole reliance on Russia for transporting American astronauts to and from the space station using Russia’s Soyuz crew capsules.

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle’s in July 2011, NASA astronauts and its partners have been 100% dependent on Russia for rides to space – currently to the tune of over $80 million per seat.

By awarding these new contracts, Boeing and SpaceX should be able to plan further ahead in the future, order long lead time hardware and software, and ultimately cut costs through economy of scale.

“Awarding these missions now will provide greater stability for the future space station crew rotation schedule, as well as reduce schedule and financial uncertainty for our providers,” said Phil McAlister, director, NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development Division, in a statement.

“The ability to turn on missions as needed to meet the needs of the space station program is an important aspect of the Commercial Crew Program.”

Each spaceship can deliver a crew of four and 220 pounds of cargo, experiments and gear to the million pound science laboratory orbiting Earth at an altitude of appox. 250 miles (400 km). They also serve as a lifeboat in case the occupants need to evacuate the station for any reason.

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2018. Credit: NASA

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, respectively, under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

The CCP initiative was started back in 2010 under the Obama Administration to replace NASA’s outgoing space shuttle orbiters.

However, launch targets for first fight by the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon have been repeatedly postponed from 2015 to 2018 – in the latest iteration – due to severe and extremely shortsighted funding cutbacks by Congress year after year.

Thus NASA has been forced to order several years more additional Soyuz taxi seat flights and send hundreds and hundreds of millions of more US dollars to Putin’s Russia – thanks to the US Congress.

Congress enjoys whining about Russia on one hand, while at the same time they put America’s aerospace workers on the unemployment line by curtailing NASA’s ability to move forward and put Americans back to work. There is ample bipartisan blame for this sad state of affairs.

The Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon are both Made in America.

The Boeing Starliner is being manufactured at the Kennedy Space Center inside a repurposed and renovated former Space Shuttle Orbiter Processing hangar. This author has visited the C3PF facility periodically to observe and assess Boeing’s progress.

The honeycombed upper dome of a Boeing Starliner spacecraft on a work stand inside the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The upper dome is part of Spacecraft 1 , the first flightworthy Starliner being developed in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Indeed, Boeing has already started construction of the first flight worthy Starliner – currently dubbed Spacecraft 1- at KSC this past summer 2016.

Looking inside the newly upgraded Starliner mockup with display panel, astronauts seats, gear and hatch at top that will dock to the new International Docking Adapter (IDA) on the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The SpaceX Crew Dragon is being manufactured at company headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Blastoff of the first SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on its first unmanned test flight, or Demonstration Mission 1, is postponed from May 2017 to November 2017, according to the latest quarterly revision just released by NASA last month in Dec. 2016.

Liftoff of the first piloted Crew Dragon with a pair of NASA astronauts strapped in has slipped from August 2017 to May 2018.

Launch of the first uncrewed Boeing Starliner, known as an Orbital Flight Test, has slipped to June 2018.

Liftoff of the first crewed Starliner is now slated for 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.

Boeing’s uncrewed flight test, known as an Orbital Flight Test, is currently scheduled for June 2018 and its crewed flight test currently is planned for August 2018.

“Once the flight tests are complete and NASA certifies the providers for flight, the post-certification missions to the space station can begin,” NASA official said.

Fiery blastoff of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket like this one will launch the Boeing CST-100 Starliner to the ISS. Note the newly installed crew access tower and crew access arm and white room. Here is is carrying the EchoStar XIX satellite from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Meanwhile the rockets and launch pads for Boeing and SpaceX are also being developed, modified and refurbished as warranted.

The launch pads for both are located on Florida’s Space Coast.

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon will launch on the company’s own Falcon 9 from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of commercial and human rated Falcon 9 rockets as well as the Falcon Heavy, as seen here during Dec 2016 with construction of a dedicated new transporter/erector. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

A crane lifts the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016. Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

SpaceX’s Fueling Process Makes NASA Queasy

On September 1st, 2016, SpaceX experienced a rather public setback when one of their Falcon 9 rockets exploded on its launchpad at the Cape Canaveral Launch Complex in Florida. Though the accident resulted in no fatalities or injuries, this accident has since raised concerns over at NASA concerning the company’s safety standards.

Such was the conclusion reached by NASA’s Space Station Advisory Committee, which met on Monday, Oct. 31st, to discuss the accident and make recommendations. In a statement, the committee indicated that SpaceX’s policy of fueling rockets immediately before launch could pose a serious threat to crewed missions.

These concerns have been expressed before, but have become all the more relevant in light of the recent accident. At the time of the explosion, the rocket was already outfitted with its cargo capsule (which contained the Spacecom Amos-6 communications satellite). In the future, SpaceX hopes to send crewed missions into space, which means crews’ lives could be at risk in the event that a similar accident takes place during fueling.

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Launch Complex-40, as seen from the VAB roof after the fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Lt. General Thomas Stafford (USAF), who chaired the committee, was especially emphatic about the need for SpaceX to review its fueling policy. According to The Wall Street Journal, this is the second time that Lt. Gen. Stafford has expressed concerns. The last time was in 2015, when he sent a letter to NASA arguing that the company’s policy of fueling a rocket with its cargo already on board went against decades of procedure.

In the past, NASA has always maintained a policy where a rocket’s cargo is added only after the rocket is fueled. The same goes for crewed missions, where astronauts would board the rocket or Shuttle only after all pre-flight procedures were finished. But in the age of NewSpace, and with private companies offering launch services, things work a little differently.

For example, SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket relies on a combination of liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene propellant, which has less mass than conventional rocket fuel. This lets them pack more fuel into their rockets, and to be able to place larger payloads into orbit. However, this method requires that the rocket be immediately fueled before launch so that the fuel does not have time to warm up and expand.

As a result, future missions – which include crewed ones – will have to be fueled immediately before launch in order to ensure that the rocket’s fuel and lift capacity are not compromised. The Advisory Committee’s recommendations could therefore have a significant impact on how SpaceX does business. However, there recommendations might be a bit premature as far as crewed missions go.

For instance, the Dragon V2 has a crew abort system that was specifically designed for this kind of situation. Relying on the capsule’s eight side-mounted SuperDraco engines, this system is programmed to conduct a propulsive firing in the event of a catastrophic failure on the launchpad. The capsule also comes with a landing chute which will deploy once the rockets are depleted to ensure that it makes a soft landing.

In May of 2015, the company tested this system at the Cape Canaveral Launch Complex, followed by a “propulsive hovering test” in November of that same year. Both tests were successful and demonstrated how the SuperDraco engines are capable of launching the capsule to safety, and that they were capable of keeping the capsule in a state of equilibrium above the ground (see video above).

In addition, SpaceX responded to news of the Advisory Panel and expressed confidence in its procedures, which included fueling and their launch abort system. In an official statement, the full text of which was procured by Universe Today via email, the company said that:

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. As part of this process, the crew will safely board the Crew Dragon, ground personnel will depart, propellants will be carefully loaded over a short period, and then the vehicle will launch. During this time the Crew Dragon launch abort system will be enabled.  Over the last year and a half, NASA and SpaceX have performed a detailed analysis of all potential hazards with this process.”

A Falcon 9 test firing its nine first-stage Merlin engines at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Feb of 2015. Credit: NASA/Frankie Martin
A Falcon 9 test firing its nine first-stage Merlin engines at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Feb of 2015. Credit: NASA/Frankie Martin

In addition, they cited that prior to the Sept.1st accident, all safety protocols had been followed and NASA had  signed off on the launch. But of course, they also expressed that they would continue to comply with all safety procedures, which could include any changes based on the Advisory Committee’s recommendations:

“The hazard report documenting the controls was approved by the NASA’s Safety Technical Review Board in July 2016. As with all hazard analyses across the entire system and operations, controls against those hazards have been identified, and will be implemented and carefully verified prior to certification. There will be continued work ahead to show that all of these controls are in place for crewed operations and that the verifications meet NASA requirements. These analyses and controls will be carefully evaluated in light of all data and corrective actions resulting from the anomaly investigation. As needed, any additional controls will be put in place to ensure crew safety, from the moment the astronauts reach the pad, through fueling, launch, and spaceflight, and until they are brought safely home.”

In the meantime, SpaceX investigators are still attempting to find out exactly what went wrong with the Sept.1st launch. The most recent update (which was made on Oct. 28th) indicated that the company is making headway, and hoping to return to normal operations during the month of November.

SpaceX’s efforts are now focused on two areas – finding the exact root cause, and developing improved helium loading conditions that allow SpaceX to reliably load Falcon 9,” it states. “With the advanced state of the investigation, we also plan to resume stage testing in Texas in the coming days, while continuing to focus on completion of the investigation.”

Further Reading: WSJ

 

Boeing Starts Assembly of 1st Flightworthy Starliner Crew Taxi Vehicle at Kennedy Spaceport

Hull of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article (STA)- the first Starliner to be built in the company’s modernized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hull of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article (STA)- the first Starliner to be built in the company’s modernized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The next generation of America’s human spaceships is rapidly taking shape and “making fantastic progress” at the Kennedy Space Center as Boeing and NASA showcased the start of assembly of the first flightworthy version of the aerospace giants Starliner crew taxi vehicle to the media last week. Starliner will ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) by early 2018.

“We are making fantastic progress across the board,” John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing Commercial Programs, told Universe Today at the July 26 media event in Boeing’s new Starliner factory.

“It so nice to move from design to firm configuration, which was an incredibly important milestone, to now moving into the integrated qual phase of the campaign.”

Boeing is swiftly making tangible progress towards once again flying Americans astronauts to space from American soil as was quite visibly demonstrated when the firm showed off their spanking new Starliner ‘clean-floor factory’ to the media last week, including Universe Today – and it’s already humming with activity by simultaneously building two full scale Starliner crew vehicles.

“We are on track to support launch by the end of 2017 [of the uncrewed orbital test flight],” Mulholland told me.

“The Structural Test Article (STA) crew module is almost ready to be delivered to the test site in California. The service module is already delivered at the test site. So we are ready to move into the qualification campaign.”

“We are also in the middle of component qualification and qualifying more than one component every week as we really progress into assembly, integration and test of flight design spacecrafts.”

Starliner is being manufactured in what is officially known as Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida under contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

And the Boeing CST-100 Starliner assembly line aiming to send our astronauts to low Earth orbit and the space station is now operating full speed ahead at KSC.

Formerly known as Orbiter Processing Facility-3, or OPF-3, the facility was previously used as a servicing hanger to prepare NASA’s space shuttle orbiters for flight.

NASA-Boeing Mentor NASA, industry and news media representatives visit the modernized high bay in Boeing's Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.   Credits: NASA/Kim Shiflett
NASA, industry and news media representatives visit the modernized high bay in Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credits: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The facility has now been completely renovated and refurbished by removing about 11,000 tons of massive steel work platforms that once enshrouded the space shuttle orbiters for servicing and refurbishment for flight – and been transformed into Boeings gleaming white C3PF Starliner manufacturing facility.

Components for the first Starliner that will actually fly in space – known as Spacecraft 1 – began arriving recently at the C3PF. These include the upper and lower domes, as well as the docking hatch for the spacecrafts pressure vessel.

“You can see the beginning of Spacecraft 1. To build it all of the major structural elements are here,” Mulholland explained.

“The lower dome will be populated and get to first power on early next year. We are really looking forward to that. Then we will mate that to the upper dome and start in on the ground qualification on Spacecraft 1.”

Altogether Boeing is fabricating three Starliner flight spacecraft.

“We will start building Spacecraft 2 in the Fall of this year. And then we will start Spacecraft 3 early next year.”

“So we will have three Starliner spacecraft flight crew module builds as we move into the flight campaign.”

The honeycombed upper dome of a Boeing Starliner spacecraft on a work stand inside the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The upper dome is part of Spacecraft 1 , the first flightworthy Starliner being developed in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The honeycombed upper dome of a Boeing Starliner spacecraft on a work stand inside the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The upper dome is part of Spacecraft 1 , the first flightworthy Starliner being developed in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Technicians are outfitting these individual components of the pressure vessel with wiring and lines, avionics and other systems, before they are bolted together.

Spacecraft 1 is actually the second Starliner being manufactured at the Kennedy Space Center.

The first full scale Starliner vehicle to be built is known as the Structural Test Article (STA) and is nearing completion.

The lower dome of the Boeing Starliner Spacecraft 1 assembly being outfitted with flight systems like wiring,  lines, avionics in the firm’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The lower dome of the Boeing Starliner Spacecraft 1 assembly being outfitted with flight systems like wiring, lines, avionics in the firm’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Notably Spacecraft 1 will be the first Starliner to fly in the company’s pad abort test.

“Spacecraft 1 will go into the ground campaign and then the pad abort,” Mulholland stated.

“The test is designed to prove the launch abort system planned for the spacecraft will be able to lift astronauts away from danger in the event of an emergency during launch operations,” says NASA.

The Pad Abort test is currently slated for 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.

“Spacecraft 3 will be the first to fly in orbit on the uncrewed flight test by the end of 2017,” Mulholland confirmed.

‘Spacecraft 2 will go through a several month long thermal vac testing and EMI and EMC in California in the middle of next year and then go into the crewed flight test [in 2018].”

The rather distinctive, olive colored aluminum domes are manufactured using a weldless spin forming process by Spincraft, based in North Billerica, Massachusetts.

They take on their honeycombed look after being machined for the purposes of reducing weight and increasing strength to handle the extreme stresses of spaceflight. The lower dome is machined by Janicki Industries in Layton, Utah, and the upper dome is machined by Major Tool & Machine in Indianapolis.

Overhead view of the docking hatch for the Boeing Starliner Spacecraft 1 assembly which technicians will soon join to the upper dome in the firm’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Overhead view of the docking hatch for the Boeing Starliner Spacecraft 1 assembly which technicians will soon join to the upper dome in the firm’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Engineers bolted together the upper and lower domes of Boeings maiden Starliner crew module in early May to form the complete hull of the pressure vessel for the Structural Test Article (STA).

Altogether they are held together by 216 bolts. They have to line up perfectly. And the seals are checked to make sure there are no leaks, which could be deadly in space.

Boeing expects to finish fabricating the STA by August.

The completed Starliner STA will then 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 an 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.”

Boeing has also vastly updated the mockup Starliner to reflect the latest spacecraft advances and assist in manufacturing the three planned flight units.

Bastian Technologies built many of the components for the mockup and signed as new 18-month new Mentor-Protégé Program agreement with Boeing and NASA at the media event.

The mock up “is used as a hands-on way to test the design, accessibility and human factors during the early design and development phase of the program. The mock-up is currently being used for rapid fire engineering verification activities, ergonomic evaluations [including the seats and display panels], and crew ingress and egress training,” says NASA.

Looking inside the newly upgraded Starliner mockup with display panel, astronauts seats, gear and hatch at top that will dock to the new International Docking Adapter (IDA) on the ISS.    Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking inside the newly upgraded Starliner mockup with display panel, astronauts seats, gear and hatch at top that will dock to the new International Docking Adapter (IDA) on the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

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.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-61 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on July 28, 2016 at 8:37 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Boeing Starliner will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket similar to the one carrying the NROL-61 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) from Space Launch Complex-41 on July 28, 2016 at 8:37 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 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 at the Kennedy Space Center. Exterior view depicts mural for the Boeing Company’s recently 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

John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing Commercial Programs, and Ken Kremer, Universe Today, discuss status and assembly of 1st flightworthy Boeing Starliner by the new Starliner mockup in the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Starliner will transport US astronauts to the ISS by 2018.  Credit: Julian Leek
John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing Commercial Programs, and Ken Kremer, Universe Today, discuss status and assembly of 1st flightworthy Boeing Starliner by the new Starliner mockup in the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Starliner will transport US astronauts to the ISS by 2018. Credit: Julian Leek

NASA Estimates SpaceX 2018 Mars Mission Will Cost Only $300 Million

Ever since Musk founded SpaceX is 2002, with the intention of eventually colonizing Mars, every move he has made has been the subject of attention. And for the past two years, a great deal of this attention has been focused specifically on the development of the Falcon Heavy rocket and the Dragon 2 capsule – the components with which Musk hopes to mount a lander mission to Mars in 2018.

Among other things, there is much speculation about how much this is going to cost. Given that one of SpaceX’s guiding principles is making space exploration cost-effective, just how much money is Musk hoping to spend on this important step towards a crewed mission? As it turns out, NASA produced some estimates at a recent meeting, which indicated that SpaceX is spending over $300 million on its proposed Mars mission.

These estimates were given during a NASA Advisory Council meeting, which took place in Cleveland on July 26th between members of the technology committee. During the course of the meeting, James L. Reuter – the Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate – provided an overview of NASA’s agreement with SpaceX, which was signed in December of 2014 and updated this past April.

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

In accordance with this agreement, NASA will be providing support for the company’s plan to send an uncrewed Dragon 2 capsule (named “Red Dragon”) to Mars by May of 2018. Intrinsic to this mission is the plan to conduct a propulsive landing on Mars, which would test the Dragon 2‘s SuperDraco Descent Landing capability. Another key feature of this mission will involve using the Falcon Heavy to deploy the capsule.

The terms of this agreement do not involve the transfer of funds, but entails active collaboration that would be to the benefit parties. As Reuters indicated in his presentation, which NASA’s Office of Communications shared with Universe Today via email (and will be available on the STMD’s NASA page soon):

“Building on an existing no-funds-exchanged collaboration with SpaceX, NASA is providing technical support for the firm’s plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars. This collaboration could provide valuable entry, descent and landing (EDL) data to NASA for our journey to Mars, while providing support to American industry. We have similar agreements with dozens of U.S. commercial, government, and non-profit partners.”

Further to this agreement is NASA’s commitment to a budget of $32 million over the next four years, the timetable of which were partially-illustrated in the presentation: “NASA will contribute existing agency resources already dedicated to [Entry, Descent, Landing] work, with an estimated value of approximately $32M over four years with approximately $6M in [Fiscal Year] 2016.”

Diagram showing SpaceX's planned "Red Dragon" mission to Mars. Credit: NASA/SpaceX
Diagram showing SpaceX’s planned “Red Dragon” mission to Mars. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

According to Article 21 of the Space Act Agreement between NASA and SpaceX, this will include providing SpaceX with: “Deep space communications and telemetry; Deep space navigation and trajectory design; Entry, descent and landing system analysis and engineering support; Mars entry aerodynamic and aerothermal database development; General interplanetary mission advice and hardware consultation; and planetary protection consultation and advice.”

For their part, SpaceX has not yet disclosed how much their Martian mission plan will cost. But according to Jeff Foust of SpaceNews, Reuter provided a basic estimate of about $300 million based on a 10 to 1 assessment of NASA’s own financial commitment: “They did talk to us about a 10-to-1 arrangement in terms of cost: theirs 10, ours 1,” said Reuter. “I think that’s in the ballpark.”

As for why NASA has chosen to help SpaceX make this mission happen, this was also spelled out in the course of the meeting. According to Reuter’s presentation: “NASA conducted a fairly high-level technical feasibility assessment and determined there is a reasonable likelihood of mission success that would be enhanced with the addition of NASA’s technical expertise.”

Such a mission would provide NASA with valuable landing data, which would prove very useful when mounting its crewed mission in the 2030s. Other items discussed included NASA-SpaceX collaborative activities for the remainder of 2016 – which involved a “[f]ocus on system design, based heavily on Dragon 2 version used for ISS crew and cargo transportation”.

Artistic concepts of the Falcon Heavy rocket (left) and the Dragon capsule deployed on the surface of Mars (right). Credit: SpaceX
Artistic concepts of the Falcon Heavy rocket (left) and the Dragon capsule deployed on the surface of Mars (right). Credit: SpaceX

It was also made clear that the Falcon Heavy, which SpaceX is close to completing, will serve as the launch vehicle. SpaceX intends to conduct its first flight test (Falcon Heavy Demo Flight 1) of the heavy-lifter in December of 2016. Three more test flights are scheduled to take place between 2017 and the launch of the Mars lander mission, which is still scheduled for May of 2018.

In addition to helping NASA prepare for its mission to the Red Planet, SpaceX’s progress with both the Falcon Heavy and Dragon 2 are also crucial to Musk’s long-term plan for a crewed mission to Mars – the architecture of which has yet to be announced. They are also extremely important in the development of the Mars Colonial Transporter, which Musk plans to use to create a permanent settlement on Mars.

And while $300 million is just a ballpark estimate at this juncture, it is clear that SpaceX will have to commit considerable resources to the enterprise. What’s more, people must keep in mind that this would be merely the first in a series of major commitments that the company will have to make in order to mount a crewed mission by 2024, to say nothing of building a Martian colony!

In the meantime, be sure to check out this animation of the Crew Dragon in flight:

Further Reading: NASA STMD
TOTH: SpaceNews

NASA Receives Significant Budget Boost for Fiscal Year 2016

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

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

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