Commercial Crew Update : First Flights in Sight

Credit NASA

Credit NASA

NASA held a press conference at the Kennedy Space Center yesterday to re-cap last year’s progress on the Commercial Crew Program and to look ahead at the agenda for 2013.  Present were NASA Commercial Spaceflight Development  director Phil McCalister, NASA Commercial Crew program director Ed Mango, and representatives of Blue Origin,  Sierra Nevada, Boeing and SpaceX, as well as NASA moderator Mike Curie.

Summarizing progress from 2012, Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, which did not put in a bid for CCiCAP, highlighted his company’s  recent escape test conducted in West Texas under CCDev. He also showed a video of thrust chamber testing for the BE-3 100,000 lb thrust hydrogen  /oxygen engine which took place at NASA Stennis. The test utilized the Stennis test stand to supply fuel and oxidizer rather than the engine’s own turbopump  assembly.  Meyerson did point however that Blue Origin is still hiring, engine testing is ongoing, and the company expects to return to Stennis shortly.

Mark Sirangelo, representing  Sierra Nevada  and the Dream Chaser, which received a partial award as part of CCiCap, highlighted captive carry tests conducted in the skies over Boulder, Colorado last May, and looked forward to a busy program of flight testing beginning later this quarter and continuing throughout the year. The tests will be both with a pilot at the controls as well as fully autonomous.   Sirangelo likened the role of the current flight testing, the next phase of which will take place at Dryden, to the role played by the Orbiter Enterprise in providing final refinements for the Shuttle program.

John Mulholland, representing Boeing and the CST-100 spacecraft, emphasized the significant amount of risk reduction performed during the previous year, as well as ongoing refinements in the form of a number of design reviews  which will take place over the coming months.  Boeing anticipates a first flight capability in 2016, which would consist of a three-day flight conducted by a pair of Boeing astronauts.

SpaceX was represented by former astronaut Garret Reisman who recapped that company’s achievements in 2012, highlighted of course by two trips to the International Space Station by its Dragon spacecraft. In looking ahead,  SpaceX had the most to offer for 2013, re-affirming the company’s plan to conclude the year with a full pad abort test of the Dragon capsule at the Cape. Reisman also offered a glimpse into early 2014 and what could be a game winning gambit for SpaceX,  a full-scale flight abort test aboard a Falcon 9 only weeks before the next phase of the contract.

Reporters questions focused on the possible timing of demonstration flights for Boeing and SpaceX included under the optional section of CCiCAP.  Boeing as mentioned, envisions flight tests in 2016, while SpaceX anticipates being able to conduct two orbital tests in 2015. The inital test mid-summer would be to orbit, and the second test would occur at the end of the 2015 with the flight of a pair of SpaceX astronauts to the International Space Station.  Either case would set up the unusual spectacle of the birth of a new age of semi-private orbital spaceflight before the return of NASA astronauts launching from American soil in 2017. When questioned on this point,  Ed Mango brought up a previous graphic to remind viewers that the purpose of Commercial Crew is two fold, to regain NASA’s access to space on American launch vehicles, but also to foster the development of a related commercial capability. Safety however, would continue to be the paramount issue, a point which Reisman underscored when asked if he anticipated occupying one of the Dragon’s seats. Regardless of who was chosen, the risk must be deemed sufficiently acceptable that he was “willing to go” personally.

With each of the entrants having made considerable progress since the initiation of CCiCap,  and being essentially on schedule with their respective milestones,  the major area of concern is not what  NASA, Sierra Nevada, Boeing or SpaceX is doing, but what Congress is not doing;  which is providing sufficient funds to advance the program at a reasonable rate.  Although the Administration’s budget request will probably come out in the next couple of weeks, there is already some indication that once again Congress will slash the funding and elect by default to keep paying Russia to launch U.S. astronauts for longer than is necessary.

Given the fact that the Senate, which after all, took the time to specifically mandate the design criteria for SLS, has not seen fit to pass a budget of any type for the last three years, the prospects for rationale decision-making are less than encouraging. If another cut is forthcoming, NASA will find itself having to make a very uncomfortable decision between proceeding with two providers which it really wants, but over an extended time frame, or down selecting to a single provider.  Much more as the year unfolds….

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