Catching a Dream: NASA’s CRS-2 Awards

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Perhaps it is time to change the plucky little spacecraft’s name. In a press conference held Thursday afternoon at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to announce the CRS-2 contract awards, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane finally caught up with its ambitions, becoming for a day at least, Dream Catcher.

In fact, the second Commercial Resupply Services Contract, or CRS-2 announcement provided a cause for celebration for each of the three remaining entrants; Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX, as well as the Space Station program and its various stakeholders. In brief, NASA awarded each vendor a minimum of six resupply missions, all of which will take place between late 2019 and the Station’s current authorization date of December 31st, 2024.  While the total contract value was established at a maximum of some $14 billion, NASA officials stressed repeatedly that the real number will come “nowhere close to that amount.” Until flights begin under the new contracts, NASA will order gap filler missions from CRS-1 vendors SpaceX and Orbital ATK.

As for the specific mix of missions, NASA has an array of options which are now significantly enhanced by the inclusion of Dream Chaser.

Orbital ATK: Orbital will continue to offer its Cygnus resupply vessel in the enhanced version which entered service on the Orb-4 mission. Moreover, moving beyond the October 28th, 2014 loss of the ORB-3, the company will continue to offer flights from Florida carried aboard the United Launch Alliance Atlas-V, as well as renewed flights from the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia once the re-powered Antares 230 enters service later this year. A substantially more powerful booster than the Antares, the Atlas/Cygnus combination provides NASA what amounts to a “heavy lift” option which maximizes the total mass of cargo carried. As is the case today, the Cygnus does not offer any capability for cargo return other than trash disposal in the upper atmosphere. Also, and in contrast to both Dream Chaser and the SpaceX Dragon, Cygnus is offered in berthing mode only, and cannot be docked. The former procedure requires more crew time, eating into a commodity which is at a premium on the Station.

SpaceX: The company which paved the way for Commercial Resupply with the COTS 2/3 flight in 2012 will continue to offer more of the same with its combination of Falcon 9 booster and Dragon capsule, at least for now. Declining to go into specifics until after all bidders have be briefed, NASA did reveal that as expected SpaceX is offering a (presumably) powered landing option for Dragon, one which would meet a much coveted rapid return requirement of 6 hours, one which would help accommodate time sensitive experiments. Also, and in keeping with prior announcements, the Dragon will be offered with either berthing or docking adapters, the latter coming from its separate efforts in the Commercial Crew program.

For those curious about the possibility of SpaceX offering a previously flown Falcon first stage there was no direct discussion. However, there is one inference which could be loosely drawn from prior history and current events. The first Falcon to launch to ISS was third such booster overall. Yesterday, ISS Program Director Kirk Shireman noted that being almost a new booster, the current Full Power Falcon 9 will not be flying to ISS until its 3rd mission as well. To the extent two cases make precedence, one could surmise that the space agency would be willing to entertain the possibility of a re-used booster after two previous (successful) efforts.

Sierra Nevada Corp: It is hard not to overtly cheer for the winged space plane on the basis of sheer determination alone. Following its loss in the final round of the Commercial Crew program, SNC pulled out all the stops in an effort to keep its dream alive. Efforts included a controversial bid protest, and when that failed, renewed marketing of an automated version of the craft to both Europe and Japan. There was even a 2/3 version of the spacecraft which SNC said could lift off under Paul Allen’s massive Stratolaunch aircraft and fly to orbit via an Orbital ATK rocket. When Orbital ATK subsequently exited the Stratolaunch project as parent company Vulcan Aerospace began considering a smaller booster and different market segment, the CRS-2 competition became Dream Chaser’s last, best hope.

Perhaps it always was from the beginning. Freed from the substantial additional requirements of developing a human rated vehicle and given more time to sort out lingering challenges such as the on-board propulsion system, SNC now has the leeway to field a cargo solution which NASA is clearly eager to obtain. Launching aboard a ULA Atlas V from Cape Canaveral and secured inside a 5.2 meter payload fairing made possible by a folding wing design, the re-tooled Dream Chaser will now feature an aft cargo section which looks a bit like a travel trailer, and will serve as the connecting point to ISS. Like Dragon, it will be offered with either a berthing or a docking option. Unlike Dragon however, it will from the outset be able to touch down on a runway with a soft, low-G landing which will provide an additional margin of security for fragile experiments. It is the timing of the landing however, which seems to have the most appeal. SNC will be be able to offer researchers a 3 hour sample return capability, due in part to use of “green” propellants which will not require time consuming decontamination procedures. While the difference might seem trivial, NASA’s Julie Robinson stressed that for certain experiments, namely those which study adaptations to and from micro-gravity, it is actually a critical component in extending the range of ISS research.

United Launch Alliance and Russia: The selection of Sierra Nevada brought another win for ULA and the Atlas V, which will now be launching no less than three different spacecraft to ISS; Boeing’s CST-100/Starliner, the Dream Chaser, and on occasion, Orbital ATK’s Cygnus. At the same time, it can only be considered a significant victory for Russia as well, which will now see its current production engines powering two of the three “American” rockets which will be be flying to ISS for next 8 years, pushing uphill three of the four vehicle families making the trip. For the time being, SpaceX remains the only fully domestic solution.

NASA: As mentioned the CRS-2 contracts offered an opportunity to apply lessons learned from CRS-1. Having suffered two launch incidents within a short period of time, expanding dissimilar redundancy was of paramount importance. With three cargo providers launching from three different facilities, and two options for pressurized return, that objective has will almost certainly be achieved, and it now seems that the agency can put concerns of a broken supply line in the rear view mirror. The other benefit is an dramatic increase in the range of options at NASA’s disposal in ordering up cargo missions. To that point, the agency is reserving the right to purchase flights on an a-la-cart basis, or in groups. Another change, obvious in hindsight, it to require insurance coverage to re-reimburse the government for lost payloads or damage to ISS. Also, with a focus on minimizing crew time spent on packing and unpacking cargo craft, NASA increased the per flight requirement to 65 cargo transfer bag equivalents per 1,000 kg of pressurized cargo.

From a national perspective, the yesterday’s announcements mark a sort of milepost in human space exploration. With Commercial Crew under development, and CRS-2 contract awards declared, the International Space Station program should enter a period or relative calm, provided Europe approves extension of Station operations through 2024 at a ministerial meeting which will not take place until December. A decision of whether or not to extend the operation of ISS beyond that point must ultimately be made, but now it will take place with a larger number of stakeholders and more entrenched interests involved. At the same time, the circumstances are likely to change as well, with the profusion of commercial launches of both cargo and crew building the perception that the nation’s space agency is in motion, even if ISS remains in the same orbit. The same may not apply to the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, where a slow development schedule, lack of defined missions and a Presidential election all offer risks that ISS will not face for the time being. Above all else, NASA’s undeniable achievements in fostering commercial solutions for Low Earth Orbit will continue to suggest to many that it is a model which could be applied to its deep space ambitions as well.

 

 

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3 Comments on "Catching a Dream: NASA’s CRS-2 Awards"

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  1. Dave Huntsman says:

    Stewart – Good writeup, as usual. I agree with everything said. Two additional thoughts:

    1. With the 6-flight minimum for SNC as a base, it will be interesting to see whether Mark Sirangelo can now go back to previous discussions with either ESA or JAXA, on a possible partnership for a manned Dreamchaser. Both ESA and JAXA would dearly love to have their own human space transportation system; having one that’s essentially had its development been paid for, and then flight proven, via the US private and government sectors, might seem to be a golden opportunity to get one on the cheap, that will likely never come again.

    2. You mention ESA’s approving extension of ISS to 2024 almost as a given; this time around, it isn’t. The last time around it only got extended because of one member state’s insistence (and funding), Germany; in hard bargaining with France. Germany’s support for continued extension to 2024 is probably more precarious this time around, given what’s happening in Germany right now.

    Plus, it isn’t just about ISS funding decisions: The ministers next year will have to decide what their long-term space plan is through lots of internal politics in each country, then horse-trading between countries. In terms of space decisions, China is pushing Europe to join in with them on future space endeavors, especially China’s upcoming space station. If SLS/Orion continues past 2017, the US might want them instead to continue with the Orion service module (in addition to ISS extension). Plus, there’s the issue of European human space access – again, as per above, something I think Mark Sirangelo will try to play with them on Dream Chaser.

    There’s no way ESA would do all 4 of those; they are likely, in my view, to do only one.

    Which one?

  2. PK Sink says:

    “Above all else, NASA’s undeniable achievements in fostering commercial solutions for Low Earth Orbit will continue to suggest to many that it is a model which could be applied to its deep space ambitions as well.”

    That is music to my ears (or eyes?). Can’t wait to see how it plays out.

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