SpaceX Pad Abort Test Preview


Image Credit: SpaceX

NASA and SpaceX held a press conference at the Kennedy Space Center this morning to preview next week’s Pad Abort Test for the Commercial Crew Dragon capsule. SpaceX was represented by V.P. of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann, and NASA by SpaceX Commercial Crew parter manager John Cowart. The test, which had been scheduled for Tuesday, has now been moved to Wednesday, May 6th,  with a “launch” window which will begin at 7:00 AM EDT.

With no Space Station to catch, nor even a specific GTO orbit to reach, SpaceX has the luxury of a nearly a full day to get everything in place for a test which will be nearly over before the sound of all 8 side mounted SuperDraco engines alerts spectators that the event has begun.

Taking place at Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40,  the Dragon capsule, with attached trunk, will be erected on a stand sitting over the flame trench which ordinarily bears the brunt of the 1.3 million pounds of thrust generated by the Falcon 9.  Upon ignition, the 8 SuperDraco engines will burn for six seconds, driving the assembly in an upward canted to the East and an intended destination 6,000 ft. away. In order to prevent a collision, SpaceX is in the process of removing the network of wires which connect the four lighting towers which surround SLC-40.

As soon as propulsion ceases, the Dragon’s trunk, which is equipped with four aerodynamic fins, will fall away, as the capsule continues to coast to an estimated apogee of 4,500 ft. At that point, two drogue parachutes, each equipped with two reefing stages will deploy, followed by the triple reefed main parachutes. If all goes well, the heavily instrumented capsule will be float to a point in the Atlantic Ocean only 3,000 feet offshore, where it will be quickly recovered by a small armada of waiting vessels.

While there will not be any crew onboard, the Dragon does have a sole occupant, a crash test dummy named “Buster,” strapped into a seat similar to what astronauts will eventually use. Like the capsule itself, Buster will be instrumented and provide useful data on what a possible abort environment my might be like for future crews should the occasion ever arise. SpaceX estimated the acceleration force will be a manageable 4-4.5 G’s for a spacecraft which will accelerate from zero to 300 knots in six second. “Faster even” joked Koenigsmann, “than a Tesla.”

One of the more interesting aspects of the test, which the panel thought might constitute a first for the space coast (Apollo abort tests were performed at Wallops) is the fact that it will be a definite first for the hypergolic fueled SuperDraco. SpaceX has thus far only fired two at any given time, and the prospect of all 8, which are arranged in four side mounted pods, is giving an added air of excitement to what is in some ways the first tangible element of a crew flight program which NASA and SpaceX have been working on for the last four years.

Wednesday’s test will be one of two remaining milestones selected by SpaceX under the CCiCap phase of the Commercial Crew program. The other milestone is an in-flight abort test of the Dragon capsule, which will take place at Vandenberg, California later this year or early next year. The timing of that test will be heavily influenced by the data gathered from the Pad Abort Test. Both Cowart and Koenigsmann repeatedly stressed the notion that the entire point of testing is to find out what you don’t know, and both suggested that the test could be a considered a success even if certain elements are not successful. In case some things do not go as planned, SpaceX will have the opportunity to make corrections and try again as part of the in-flight abort test.

NASA television coverage of the Pad Abort Test is set to begin at 6:45 AM on Wednesday May 6th and in case you miss it, there should be no lack of images later in the day. Koenigsmann was eager to point out that as part of the instrumentation recording every aspect of the Dragon’s brief flight, there will be a number of cameras which will offer some “cool views.”

Boeing Completes Final CCiCap Milestones (Again?)

CST 100 Approaches ISS
Credit: Boeing 2

Image Credit: Boeing

Note: NASA’s start work /stop work/ start work edicts to Boeing and SpaceX due to the Sierra Nevada Commercial Crew bid protest do not apply to the work being performed under CCiCap.

The timing of this announcement is also a little strange. Boeing announced in August that it had completed all of its CCiCap milestones, and numerous press articles cited that announcement as a reason for its success in winning a share of the CCtCap award.

Taken from the Boeing press release on August 21st “The reviews were Boeing’s final two milestones in the current phase of its partnership with NASA.”  Odd.

NASA Press Release

October 17, 2014
RELEASE 14-291
Boeing Concludes Commercial Crew Space Act Agreement for CST-100/Atlas V

Boeing has successfully completed the final milestone of its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) Space Act Agreement with NASA. The work and testing completed under the agreement resulted in significant maturation of Boeing’s crew transportation system, including the CST-100 spacecraft and Atlas V rocket.

NASA in July approved the Critical Design Review Board milestone for Boeing’s crew transportation system, confirming the detailed designs and plans for test and evaluation form a satisfactory basis to proceed with full-scale fabrication, assembly, integration and testing. It is the culmination of four years of development work by Boeing beginning when the company partnered with NASA during the first round of agreements to develop commercial crew transportation systems. To get to this point, extensive spacecraft subsystem, systems, and integrated vehicle design work has been performed, along with extensive component and wind tunnel testing.

Boeing is one of eight companies NASA partnered with during the last four years to develop a human-rated transportation system capable of flying people to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station. NASA’s unique approach encouraged companies to invest their own financial resources in the effort and open up a new industry of private space travel. Other current NASA partners Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX all are deep in development of their own commercial crew transportation systems under separate Space Act Agreements.

NASA’s spaceflight specialists from a variety of technical expertise areas not only assisted the companies but also worked closely with them in judging progress and deciding whether milestones in the Space Act Agreements were met.

The partnership with Boeing began in 2010 when NASA selected the company as one of five awardees for the first phase of commercial crew development. NASA’s second round of development awards in April 2011 also included Boeing and called for the CST-100 crew transportation system design to be advanced to the preliminary design review point.

The CCiCap initiative, the third phase of development, began in August 2012 when NASA announced an agreement with Boeing totaling $460 million to advance the design of the integrated transportation system. NASA added an optional milestone in 2013, bringing the total level of NASA investment in Boeing for CCiCap to $480 million.

Development work aligned with milestone goals of the initiative, and work took place at numerous locations across the country to take advantage of unique facilities.

Engineering teams tested and modified mission flight software, including launch, docking, on-orbit, and re-entry and landing maneuvers. Teams conducted mission simulations to advance communications and mission operations planning.

Models of the CST-100 and the Atlas V launch vehicle were tested in wind tunnels. Launch abort engines and thrusters the spacecraft will use for maneuvering in space were test-fired. Work was done to refine the spacecraft and service module designs and make modifications required for human rating the existing commercially available United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

Ground systems design and operation included launch site modification plans for crews and pad workers. Landing and recovery details also were conceived, reviewed, tested and approved.

All this work ensured Boeing’s crew transportation system matured to the verge of flight test article construction.

NASA’s goal for the Commercial Crew Program is to facilitate the development of a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station. The next and final phase of commercial crew development was announced recently with the award of Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts to Boeing and SpaceX. With the new contracts, NASA’s goal is to certify crew transportation systems in 2017 that will return the ability to launch astronauts from American soil to the International Space Station using privately built spacecraft.

SpaceX Left Out of Commercial Crew? Don’t Bet on It

launchdayspx3 006

The Wall Street Journal set off a firestorm Monday evening with an article by Andy Pasztor suggesting that Boeing is about to be named the walk off winner in NASA’s next phase of the Commercial Crew Competition, CCtCap, with an award made in conjunction with Blue Origin.

Anything could happen. As long time observers will recall, Lockheed Martin won NASA’s RLV competition in the late 1990’s, a victory which came despite the apparent strength of McDonnell Douglas’ performance with the DC-X pathfinder vehicle. We all know what happened next. Nothing. Unless you count wasted tax dollars and lost opportunities.

So here we are again, with rumors swirling that Blue Origin, who ironically, or perhaps fittingly given the personnel and design heritage between the DC-X concept and its own plans, is poised to emerge as a major player in CCtCap, despite having declined to formally enter the current CCiCap phase after winning a share of the previous segment, CCDev-2.

It its difficult to see what if anything Blue Origin could bring to the table at this point, particularly given the time constraints NASA is under to meet a 2017 first crew launch, and more importantly, the far more mature status of Boeing’s CST-100/Atlas V proposal.

That is not to say, Blue Origin does not ultimately have a major role to play, and quite frankly there is every reason to hope they do. Right not however,  there simply is not time.

There is however, every reason to think that a partnership between Blue Origin and Boeing and Lockheed Martin through ULA to develop an alternative to the RD-180 engine is at least plausible, especially given the fact that Blue’s funded CCDev-2 and ongoing unfunded Space Act Agreements with NASA centered on developing its BE-3 hydrogen/oxygen main engine for its own suborbital vehicle. Moreover, with Blue Origin and Boeing partnering up on DARPA’s XS-1 reusable first stage launcher project, the ties are already in place. Assuming a new engine project is the reason for the Wednesday announcement referenced in the WSJ piece, it would represent one possible way out of the RD-180 conundrum, although the enormous performance differential and apparent absence of large engine manufacturer Aerojet-Rocketdyne give rise to more questions than the partnership answers.

But what of NASA, SpaceX and Commercial Crew?

As pointed out last week, it stretches the bounds of credulity to believe that SpaceX would be left out of significant share of the Commercial Crew award, based on very same engine issue ULA may be trying to solve in partnership with Blue Origin.  Proceeding with a sole award to Boeing as WSJ would have us believe, or a split to Boeing and Sierra Nevada, both launching on the Atlas V, would place all the NASA eggs in a Russian basket which just might have a trap door in the bottom.

And then there is this. When NASA made the decision to lease historic launch pad 39A to SpaceX, an announcement made from the pad and immediately prior to the SpaceX CRS-3 launch, the sense of anticipation of seeing NASA crews launch from this NASA pad again was almost palpable.  Something much more ominous than a testing accident in Texas would have had to have taken place for the agency to back away from SpaceX and the Dragon V2 as at least one of two probable winners in the upcoming announcement, no matter when it comes down.

Is SpaceX out? Don’t bet on it.

Is Vladimir Putin Deciding NASA’s Commercial Crew Program?

Putin 2 Commentary

With the passing of the first week in September, NASA is presumably within a few weeks of announcing the winner or winners in the next phase of its Commercial Crew program. That phase, labeled Commercial Crew Transportation Capability or CCtCap, will see the selection of which firm is going to provide crew transport to the International Space Station beginning in 2017. There are a lot of unknowns. NASA for its part, has been very public regarding the fact that it would like to fund at least two companies in order to maintain competition and redundancy as long as possible. On the other hand, Congress has made no secret of the fact that it would prefer a single winner.

While NASA is making its decision, and the name on the contract will be that of Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier, could it be that Russian President for Life Vladimir Putin has injected himself as an unofficial and most unwelcome judge?

Besides the particular merits of each of the three crew vehicles NASA is considering; the Boeing CST-100, the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser and the SpaceX Dragon V2, is the particularly vexing issue of the booster which will launch them. Boeing and Sierra Nevada both selected the United Launch Alliance Atlas V as the booster for their respective entries. With NASA already using the Atlas V for its most valued science launches, it seemed a reasonable decision several years ago, even though the booster’s Russian built RD-180 main engine diminishes the notion that it will be re-establishing an American crew launch capability. It may have been there was little other practical choice. At the time of the CCiCap announcements in 2012 which saw the selection of each of the current, funded participants, SpaceX, though offering the Falcon 9 to competitors at an “internal price,” had only just completed the 3rd launch of its new rocket.

ULA’s other booster family, the Delta IV, requires solid rocket strap-on boosters to loft all but the lightest of EELV class payloads, leading to some question as to whether it would have ultimately been an acceptable solution to NASA. Boeing apparently thought so, at least for a time, as the company did not immediately settle on the Atlas V for the CST-100.

The fourth credible entry and the one not selected, was by ATK, and would have seen a composite capsule similar in appearance to Orion, lofted by its proposed Liberty launch vehicle, a derivative of NASA’s recently canceled Ares I. With the Liberty vanishing into vapor, so too did any possibility that it might host a competitor’s crew vehicle.

So it was the Atlas V and its Russian engine.

But that was before Russia invaded and seized the Crimea.  That was before Russia fomented civil war in Eastern Ukraine. It was before Russian supplied anti-aircraft missiles took down a Malaysian airliner over Donetsk, killing 298 civilians including 23 Americans. It was also before Russia, caught with its soldiers fighting in Ukraine resorted to the claim that it could not control what its troops did when they were on vacation, a leeway which apparently extended to taking artillery and ample rounds with them on holiday.

It was also before a Russian official threatened to withhold further shipments of the RD-180 and suggested NASA might need a trampoline to reach ISS. For now, the engines destined for the Atlas V are still making their way to the U.S., and a poor facsimile of a ceasefire is holding in Ukraine. But that is just for now.

Event though the current U.S. administration is upholding the President’s pre-re-election promise to Vladimir Putin to be “more flexible” after the election by twisting itself into knots to avoid calling Russia’s actions what they are, two things seem certain. Vladimir Putin is not likely to satiate his nostalgia for the former Soviet Empire with the gains he has already made. And the second is this, whoever happens to be elected the next President of the United States is almost certainly going to strike a different “position” where Putin, Russia and dreams of empire are concerned. In other words, even though the RD-180 is, as Dmitry Rogozin subsequently observed, a good source of cash for Russia’s efforts to modernize its aerospace base, an exercise which by extension must necessarily include its nuclear launch capability, it also remains a valuable tool to be wielded against the U.S. if circumstances dictate.

Under those conditions, and provided the Falcon/Dragon combination is an acceptable alternative in terms of astronaut safety and programmatic risk,  NASA cannot afford to arrive at a decision which relies entirely on Russian goodwill for American crew launch capability. SpaceX must therefore be one of the winners, Prudence would dictate that in a leader/follower scenario such as happened with the partial funding award for Sierra Nevada in CCiCap, that either Atlas V based entry (CST-100 or Dream Chaser) be relegated to the secondary position as well. To reiterate, those conclusions presuppose at least a parity in other key factors besides the launch vehicles.

So where does the Falcon 9 stand? As of today, SpaceX has conducted seven successful launches of the Falcon 9 V1.1 since it first flew nearly a year ago. It may well have conduced an eighth by the end of this month. Either way, and even though it has far fewer launches to its name than the Atlas V, it is already launching at a pace which far eclipses that established with the Atlas when it was introduced in 2002. If one goes back and includes the original Falcon 9, the pace falls, but the total number of successful launches climbs to 12. Even when taking into account the one concerning event which took place with the original version, the loss of a singe engine on its fourth fight, the CRS-1 mission to ISS in October of 2012, the manner in which the booster accommodated the issue and kept on performing only serves to further validate the multiple engine architecture which is one of its key characteristics.

Now however, in launching seven or twelve overall missions take your pick, SpaceX has flown its main engine either 70 or a remarkable 120 times, with one shutdown for the latter number and zero for the former. Furthermore, not only has the Falcon hosted 70 engine runs, it has seen at least five first stage re-ignitions of three engines each as part of its campaign to develop the Falcon 9-R, not to mention hundreds of test runs in Texas.

Equally noteworthy, in conducting seven flights of the Falcon 9 V1.1 with a common first stage propulsion configuration (ignoring if possible, the compelling addition of landing legs to two of those boosters), SpaceX has trimmed ULA’s sole advantage, one of raw numbers of launches to a greater degree than some might suppose.

Because it has so many configurations based on the addition of strap-on motors, (as well as payload fairings) the Atlas V has only flown with its base configuration first stage 29 times.  Still an advantage to be sure, but considerably less than the 48 total flights recorded by the booster. Perhaps most significantly, the Atlas V has not ever flown in the configuration required for Commercial Crew, a baseline first stage to avoid strap on boosters and a dual RL-10 engine upper stage to make up for the performance without the solids.  Earlier versions of the Atlas flew with the dual engine upper stage, but not the Atlas V.

Consequently, when taking into account the demonstrated performance of the specific version of the two boosters which are vying to launch the next American crews from domestic soil, the Falcon 9 V1.1 actually holds a decided 7-0 edge. ULA’s current advertising campaign targeting SpaceX, “Results over Rhetoric,” is probably hoping this is one result NASA does not take into account.

But what about the series of delays and scrubs SpaceX has encountered with the Falcon 9 throughout its history in both versions?

While the delays, or rather the issues, such as those with helium leaks, which have provoked some of the delays, clearly must be taken into account, they are also indicative of something else. The Falcon 9 V 1.1 is equipped with a very extensive, and very sensitive, fault detection system which may trigger delays, but also ensures that the booster will not launch until it is as thoroughly ready as it can be. Once it does, a triple string avionics system, upgraded from the original Falcon 9’s single string system, adds an extreme degree of reliability which the Atlas V is hard pressed to match.

None of the above ensures that the Falcon 9 is not destined to suffer an in-flight failure, or even that it is a safer booster than the Atlas V, but it does argue strongly in favor of the position that despite the lower number of overall launches, it is at least on par with the ULA product where NASA’s Commercial Crew competition is concerned.

Vladimir Putin has already made the case that in a two rocket race, NASA must place its bet on SpaceX and the all American Falcon 9.

Boeing Completes Final Two Milestones Under CCiCap


Image Credit : Boeing

Boeing announced today that it has completed the final two of 20 milestones in the CCiCap phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew program.  The announcement comes only weeks or even days ahead of a NASA’s award in the next and final phase of the program, Commercial Crew Transportation Capability, or CCtCap.  According to some reports, the agency is expected to move ahead with its oft stated desire of maintaining competition through proceeding with two commercial partners, while hoping whoever is left out with continue to work under an unfunded Space Act Agreement.

Completing the final two milestones under CCiCap on time is clear positive for Boeing, and credit is due. On the other hand, it is worth remembering that its milestones were considerably more conservative than those established by rival SpaceX, which is still targeting both pad and inflight abort tests under an extension agreement worked out with NASA.

The complete Boeing announcement is below.

HOUSTON, Aug. 21, 2014 – Boeing [NYSE: BA] recently completed the Phase Two Spacecraft Safety Review of its Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 spacecraft and the Critical Design Review (CDR) of its integrated systems, meeting all of the company’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) milestones on time and on budget.

The reviews were Boeing’s final two milestones in the current phase of its partnership with NASA. Completed in July, the CDR milestone marks a significant step in reaching the ultimate design that will be used for the spacecraft, launch vehicle and related systems. Propulsion, software, avionics, landing, power and docking systems were among 44 individual CDRs conducted as part of the broader review.

“The challenge of a CDR is to ensure all the pieces and sub-systems are working together,” said John Mulholland, Boeing Commercial Crew program manager. “Integration of these systems is key. Now we look forward to bringing the CST-100 to life.”

The CST-100 is being developed as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which aims to make crew transportation systems available for low-Earth orbit destinations such as the International Space Station by 2017. The capsule could accommodate up to seven crew members or a mix of crew and cargo and features a weld less structure, wireless internet and Boeing LED “Sky Lighting” technology.

The Phase Two Spacecraft Safety Review included an overall hazard analysis of the spacecraft, identifying life-threatening situations and ensuring that the current design mitigated any safety risks.

More information about the future of human space exploration can be found at

A unit of The Boeing Company, Boeing Defense, Space & Security is one of the world’s largest defense, space and security businesses specializing in innovative and capabilities-driven customer solutions, and the world’s largest and most versatile manufacturer of military aircraft. Headquartered in St. Louis, Boeing Defense, Space & Security is a $33 billion business with 56,000 employees worldwide. Follow us on Twitter: @BoeingDefense.

NASA Commercial Crew Update For Recent Achievements


NASA Press Release

August 21, 2014
RELEASE 14-222
NASA and Commercial Partners Review Summer of Advancements

NASA’s spaceflight experts in the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) met throughout July with aerospace partners to review increasingly advanced designs, elements and systems of the spacecraft and launch vehicles under development as part of the space agency’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) and Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) initiatives.

Blue Origin, The Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX are partners with NASA in these initiatives to develop a new generation of safe, reliable, and cost-effective crew space transportation systems to low-Earth orbit.

Company engineering representatives meet regularly with NASA engineers and specialists to survey advancements. As progress is checked off, larger, more formal reviews are conducted to show the achievement of milestones in system development. Each of the reviews also addresses points brought up in prior sessions and ends with areas to look into before the next session is held.

“These discussions capitalize on all the aspects of working as partners instead of working solely as a customer and supplier,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “The partners are innovative in a number of developmental areas. We have a set of detailed criteria drawn up so we can adequately evaluate what they are doing and they can tell us where adjustments fit in with their system’s overall success. It’s exactly what we had in mind when we kicked off this effort four years ago.”

The next milestone for Blue Origin will be a subsystem interim design review that will assess the progress of the company’s Space Vehicle design.

Development of the Boeing CST-100 continued throughout July with two milestone reviews conducted. The spacecraft phase two safety review demonstrated the CST-100 design follows the NASA safety analysis process, including documenting spacecraft hazard reports. The integrated critical design review demonstrated the design maturity of the integrated spacecraft, launch vehicle and ground systems are at their appropriate points.

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), which is working on the Dream Chaser lifting-body spacecraft, is expected to complete the review of its fifth design cycle in the coming weeks. The company also completed a review of the engineering test article with CCP and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center specialists ahead of its second free-flight test later this year. SNC continues to vacuum test its reaction control system ahead of its incremental milestone test review.

SpaceX will conduct a critical design review of its ground systems and mission and crew operations plans toward the end of August as it advances Dragon V2 through development. The company also is coming up on the primary structure qualification for the Dragon V2, which is a more advanced version of the cargo-only spacecraft SpaceX uses to transport supplies to the International Space Station.

In August or September, NASA plans to award one or more contracts that will provide the agency with commercial services to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station by the end of 2017.

As August Rolls On, A Decision on Commercial Crew Looms Large


As the second full week of August begins, we are approaching ever closer to a critical decision point in the future of American space transportation, an award announcement in the final phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew program. The next phase, called CCtCap, or Commercial Crew Transportation Capability is notionally set to be awarded in “August or September.” In other words soon, very soon.

Perhaps the last relevant announcement from any of three competitors, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX, came from the latter with last week’s report that the Hawthorne, Ca. based company has established November and January dates for its pad and in-flight abort tests respectively.  Of particular note was the fact that the in-flight abort test will take place not from Cape Canaveral as might have been expected, but instead from the SpaceX pad at Vandenberg, Ca., a facility which has thus far hosted only a single SpaceX launch, the maiden flight of the Falcon 9 V1.1 on September 29, 2013.  The location for the in-flight abort test makes for an interesting, if ultimately irrelevant storyline. It will likely be the closest the U.S. has ever come to a west coast launch of a crewed rocket, where the Air Force once prepared for a military, polar orbiting Shuttle from the SLC-6 pad now occupied by the Delta IV.

Had SpaceX been able to maintain its original timeline and completed both the pad and in-flight abort tests before the impending CCtCap announcement, the outcome might seem pre-ordained. Instead, in June, NASA granted waivers to both SpaceX and Sierra Nevada to extend the deadlines for tests being conducted as part of the previous Commercial Crew Integrated Capacity CCiCAP round. Still both SpaceX and SNC, which recently reconfirmed its plans for a 2016 automated orbital launch for its Dream Chaser space plane irrespective of the outcome of the impending award, could be considered as likely to still benefit from an accelerated schedule as compared to Boeing which elected to defer abort or flight testing until receiving a final award (and presumably the funding to cover it.)

How it all falls out, and even how many awards there will be going forward is still a mystery, but at least for a brief but waning moment, the future of America’s access to orbital space is as bright as it is going to be for a while, with three different but equally credible systems all still a possibility. Each will live on in some sense. From MOL and Dyna-Soar to Venturestar and Jupiter Direct, an alternate history of space remains alive and well in viewgraphs, plans and presentations from concepts which never came to fruition. Now, at least one more is likely to join that list. Sometimes it becomes it becomes all too easy to project our notions of “if only” on those roads not taken. Some say it is one of the average “space cadet’s” most common mistakes, to believe that the future would have been different, if only the hardware was too.

This time however, it may really be different, regardless of how the hardware decision comes down, provided NASA maintains the spirit, even as it is denied the precise form, of the Space Act Agreements which gave us COTS and CRS, (and not coincidentally Falcon 9 and Dragon) and has brought Commercial Crew to this point. One of the most telling aspects will be the degree to which NASA responds to those in Congress which want a single winner, versus its own instincts to preserve competition as long as possible, all the way through to performance.  At the same time however, the agency is also driven by the conflicting desire to field a commercial system and break absolute dependence on Russia as soon as possible. More funds directed towards a single source would presumably aid that goal.

NASA is only part of this rocket equation however, and to that end the outcome may depend on the corporate culture which is chosen as its partner as much as it does on the hardware which created it. One suspects a healthy tension would be a good thing.

SpaceX at least, as evidenced by Falcon 9-R, Raptor, well everything really, still seems immune to business as usual.  On the other hand, would Boeing even seek to resist a slide back in to the demands and pitfalls of conventional contracting for its CST-100? Or, competition now out of the way, would it welcome a return to the comfortable confines of the sole source contracts which it enjoys with SLS?

And which way would Sierra Nevada Corporation go? Aggressively marketing the Dream Chaser to both Europe and Japan, there is no lack of enthusiasm for its space plane on the part of SNC. At the same time, spreading the costs through internationalization is now a standard part of the NASA playbook, (witness both ISS and Orion’s European Service Module) and recent statements about how many different states SNC’s supplier network entails comes right off the first page, first paragraph of the book of conventional aerospace marketing.

So, as August rolls towards September, NASA is quickly approaching its moment of truth and a decision of enormous consequence not just for the agency and the path it will follow to low Earth orbit, or for the three firms most directly involved, but also for others, including Bigelow Aerospace which has enormous vested interested in the outcome, and every reason to hope for a dual winner solution to maximize its opportunities for success with a series of inflatable space stations.  Finally, of course there is also United Launch Alliance, which not so long ago might have viewed the Commercial Crew competition with healthy optimism. Now with the future of the Atlas V and its Russian RD-180 engine still up in the air, NASA’s commercial crew decision could come as a welcome respite, or as confirmation that parent company Lockheed Martin’s long running bet against American ingenuity has finally come up short.

Some thoughts to consider before the date is set, the decisions are announced, and everything changes once again.

SpaceX Tests Dragon Parachutes for Commercial Crew

Cargo Dragon Returns from Orbit Credit : SpaceX

Cargo Dragon Returns from Orbit
Credit : SpaceX


NASA Press Release:

January 17, 2014
RELEASE 14-018

NASA Commercial Crew Partner SpaceX Tests Dragon Parachute System

Engineers and safety specialists from NASA and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) gathered in Morro Bay, Calif., in late December to demonstrate how the company’s Dragon spacecraft’s parachute system would function in the event of an emergency on the launch pad or during ascent.

The test was part of an optional milestone under NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative and approved by the agency in August. Through the Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX is one of NASA’s commercial partners working to develop a new generation of U.S. spacecraft and rockets capable of transporting humans to and from low-Earth orbit from American soil. NASA intends to use such commercial systems to fly U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

The 12,000-pound test craft was lifted 8,000 feet above sea level by an Erickson Sky Crane helicopter and flown over the Pacific Ocean. Following Dragon’s release, two drogue parachutes were released from the top of the spacecraft to slow its decent, before the three main parachutes deployed. The craft splashed down and was quickly recovered by the Sky Crane and carried back to shore.

“The parachute test is essential for the commercial crew effort because it helps us better understand how SpaceX’s system performs as it safely returns crew,” said Jon Cowart, NASA Partner Integration deputy manager working with SpaceX. “Like all of our partners, SpaceX continues to provide innovative solutions based on NASA’s lessons learned that could make spaceflight safer.”

During a normal spacecraft landing, the parachutes will be aided by the Dragon’s SuperDraco thrusters to provide a soft controlled landing. This redundancy on both the parachutes and thrusters is designed to ensure safe landings for crews.

“SpaceX is working diligently to make the Dragon spacecraft the safest vehicle ever flown,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX. “The parachute system is an integral part of Dragon’s ability to provide a safe landing for nominal and abort conditions — with this successful test we are well-positioned to execute a full end-to-end test of the launch escape system later this year.”

The parachute test puts SpaceX a step closer to launch abort system tests. The company currently is manufacturing the spacecraft and rocket to be used for these flight tests.

SpaceX is on track to complete all 15 of its CCiCap milestones in 2014. All of NASA’s industry partners, including SpaceX, continue to meet their established milestones in developing commercial crew transportation capabilities.

SpaceX Completes Commerical Crew Safety Review Milestone

Closing In Credit: NASA

Closing In
Credit: NASA

Note, the next launch of the Falcon 9 v1.1., and the first from Cape Canaveral, is provisionally set for Monday, November 25th.

NASA Press Release RELEASE 13-337 NASA Commercial Crew Partner SpaceX Achieves Milestone in Safety Review Engineers and safety specialists from NASA and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) met in late October to review the safety of the Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket being developed to launch humans into low-Earth orbit later this decade.

The detailed overview of safety practices the company is implementing was a major milestone for SpaceX under a funded Space Act Agreement with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP). SpaceX is one of NASA’s commercial partners working to develop a new generation of U.S. spacecraft and rockets capable of transporting humans to and from low-Earth orbit from American soil.

NASA intends to use new commercial systems to fly U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station within the next four years. A team of NASA engineers went to SpaceX headquarters for two days of detailed presentations and question-and-answer sessions that reviewed the company’s safety practices.

“The milestone is not the end of the safety discussion, it’s really the beginning,” said Jon Cowart, deputy manager of the NASA Partnership Integration Team for CCP. “Because we’ve been doing this for so long, we all have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t and how safety processes can be strengthened to increase our confidence in the system.”

Teams from NASA and SpaceX are working closely together to make sure the innovative technologies employed meet the rigorous requirements that come with flying crews in space.

“We greatly appreciate NASA’s support and feedback throughout this process,” said Garrett Reisman, commercial crew project manager at SpaceX and a former astronaut. “Together we are taking all the necessary steps to make Dragon the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever flown.”

SpaceX already has flown several cargo missions to the space station using its Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket, but those spacecraft have not yet transported astronauts. Through NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative, the company is deep into the design process of the integrated crew-capable Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft.

SpaceX plans to test its launch abort system next year at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Two flight tests will demonstrate the ability of the Dragon spacecraft abort system to lift an uncrewed spacecraft clear of a simulated emergency.

The first test will simulate an abort from the pad prior to launch in the second quarter of 2014. The second test, targeted for the third quarter of 2014, calls for the spacecraft to separate from a Falcon 9 booster in flight and parachute safely into the Atlantic Ocean. The company is building the spacecraft for the flight tests, and manufacturing of the rocket is expected to begin shortly.

This safety review was the ninth milestone for SpaceX under CCiCap. The company is on track to complete all 15 of its CCiCap milestones by the third quarter of 2014.

All of NASA’s industry partners, including SpaceX, continue to meet their established milestones in developing commercial crew transportation capabilities.

For more information about NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and its aerospace industry partners, visit:

SpaceX Completes 7th CCiCap Milestone

Halfway There Credit :  S Money

Halfway There
Credit : S Money

NASA Press Release RELEASE 13-255 NASA Commercial Crew Partner SpaceX Completes Orbit and Entry Review NASA Commercial Crew Program (CCP) partner Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) recently reviewed the systems critical to sustaining crews in orbit and returning them safely to Earth aboard the company’s Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX is one of three commercial space companies working under NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative to develop spaceflight capabilities that eventually could provide launch services to transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil. During the preliminary design review at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., company engineers presented NASA representatives and aerospace industry experts detailed analyses of Dragon systems critical to keeping crews safe in orbit and during re-entry operations. From basic life support functions, including pressurizing Dragon with breathable air, to stocking the capsule with enough food and water for as many as seven crew members, the spacecraft must be designed to protect humans in the harsh conditions of space. Company designers and NASA engineers dissected the plans carefully to make sure no details were overlooked. “NASA has learned a lot about keeping our astronaut crews safe throughout a mission, and we don’t want those lessons to be forgotten,” said Ed Mango, NASA’s CCP manager. “So, we’re sharing a lot of what we already know, and the company is adding its own innovations to suit its needs and meet its challenges.” The review detailed equipment and software aboard Dragon that would help guide crews to the International Space Station for rendezvous and docking operations. This included discussion on SpaceX’s planning for software code which, in this modern era of spaceship design, just as critical as the hardware design. The company also described how the spacecraft will be operated both by its onboard crew and by ground controllers. While SpaceX works to further develop its crewed Dragon spacecraft, it also is preparing for the upcoming launch of the third of at least 12 cargo missions to the space station with a remotely controlled Dragon under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract. “SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft was designed from the outset to accommodate the upgrades necessary to safely carry people, so we’re excited to have reached the halfway point in our agreement with NASA to design those features,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer. “As we leverage our experience successfully delivering cargo both to the International Space Station and back to Earth, SpaceX remains committed to providing the safest manned flights ever conducted.”