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.