Commercial Manned Launch Services Awaken

March 2011
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Magazine
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The space shuttle Discovery blasts off in a rare night launch last year. With the end of the shuttle program this year, NASA is hoping to build a commercial capability for launching people into low earth orbit.

NASA is betting that industry can build a space transportation infrastructure.

The end of the space shuttle program is the signal for NASA to turn to the private sector for human access to orbit. The space agency that built a series of manned spacecraft to blaze a trail to the moon now is placing its bets on several commercial space technology companies to provide entry for humans into low earth orbit.

This new direction for the government space agency has several goals. First, it seeks to establish a domestic manned orbital capability to reach the International Space Station. After the shuttle program ends this year, the only way for spacefarers to reach the space station for the next few years will be through Russian space agency launches.

Another goal is to spur commercial development of space utilization. With two or more commercial firms offering manned orbital access, other space-based industries could begin operation in orbit, secure in the knowledge that their access is not limited to government launch vehicles and spacecraft. Several companies already are planning space-based facilities with functions ranging from research and development to tourism.

With more than one company offering manned orbital access, competition would keep prices down and spur further development. Ultimately, space travel could assume the status of airline travel in the early 1930s—an industry emerging from serving only government or elite needs to become a mainstay of the public.

NASA had planned to build its manned space access around the Constellation program and its Orion spacecraft, designed to be a multipurpose vehicle capable of a variety of near- and deep-space missions. However, the Obama administration called for bypassing the Orion program in favor of commercial space access. This approach builds on the recommendations of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, headed by former Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Officer and onetime Defense Science Board Chairman Norman R. Augustine. With the Orion program not likely to produce a usable spacecraft until 2015 at the earliest, the committee recommended “turning this transport service over to the commercial sector,” adding the goal of “… establishing a new competition for this service in which both large and small companies could participate.”

Brendan Curry, vice president for Washington operations at the Space Foundation, points out that this commercial space initiative was not met by a plethora of companies routinely shuttling cargo or people into space. NASA had to do more than just issue a bid and begin flying these providers. This new initiative required many companies to enter realms in which they had no proven track record.

But since its beginning, the initiative has spawned considerable activity among several companies. The space agency’s role will be to establish standards and facilitate development of functioning craft.

This approach is not without risk. Unforeseen rising costs could drive some companies to cancel their efforts. Similarly, significant technological failures such as the loss of a crewed craft could drive a firm out of the arena.

And, Congress has not adopted the administration’s recommendations unconditionally. Curry believes that the congressional pushback of the original proposals will lead to a compromise in which the U.S. government will be able to fly astronauts both onboard commercial spacecraft and onboard a version of Orion, if necessary. Orion is “most definitely” still in the game, he states.

NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office, or C3PO, is investing $500 million in several Space Act agreements, including the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) effort. It has invested $50 million in Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Space Act agreements. The second phase, known as CCDev 2, is slated to begin next month and last up to 14 months.

Edward J. Mango, director of NASA’s Space Transportation Planning Office, states that the program has moved past the planning stage and should be fully up and running after the next solicitation is completed. Element designs should be matured over the next year or so through agreements with a number of different companies.

“The goal of the program is twofold. The first goal is to create a U.S.-capable system or systems that can get us to low earth orbit and the International Space Station. The second is the broader goal: to help create a capability within the United States for access to low earth orbit for commercial and other issues.

“The long-term goal would be that, if the nation or the planet needs to get access to low earth orbit, we have helped create the transportation system to get there and do that,” Mango declares.

He compares NASA’s approach to that which created air mail. Originally, air mail was a fully governmental system, but it transitioned to a commercial system that expanded and offered new capabilities.

Mango explains that the traditional acquisition approach to manned spacecraft would take longer than the new approach that NASA is adopting. Also, when NASA contracted to build its early spacecraft such as Mercury and Gemini, it issued strict requirements that the contractors were compelled to meet. This new program is much broader in its overall concept of requirements, which in turn gives manufacturers more leeway in developing their own designs. Its structure allows companies to be as innovative and move as fast as possible without having NASA encumbering them.


The SpaceX Dragon capsule returned to Earth after a successful orbital test last December. The company is offering manned and unmanned versions for carrying cargo and people into space.

“We are wanting them to do their design trades and move on,” he explains. “To do that, you can’t have a highly encumbered system like you would in some traditional federal cost-plus approaches.”

The result likely will be multiple solutions to the same set of requirements, Mango says. “What we’re trying to do here is allow innovation to occur as early in the design process as possible.”

Mango describes NASA’s agreements with the companies as designed to move forward the technologies needed to mature a system. NASA has had CCDev Space Act agreements with five different companies, and some of these agreements focused on individual systems such as spacecraft life support or emergency escape. Two agreements were for spacecraft development. In all five, both NASA and its commercial partners brought money to the table, Mango relates.

NASA will be executing future agreements that focus on system integration rather than just technology push. Mango notes that these agreements might be with companies that are not part of the original five agreements. Decisions on continuing partnerships will be based on the maturity of designs as well as risks. Again, the goal is to have competition through multiple partners throughout each phase.

The biggest technological challenges facing the participating companies likely will involve integration. Most of the technologies are not cutting edge, so the key will be for companies to package their technologies into a functioning system that meets NASA needs. Mango says the spacecraft should be able to transport four humans to the space station and stay on station for more than 180 days after being launched on a relatively small launch vehicle, which would save cost.

Ultimately, the choices may come down to tradeoffs based on safety, realistic delivery schedule and cost. “Our goal is to have multiple partners through each phase into services,” he says.

“It is key to the partners—and to the government—that the anchor tenant of this concept of getting to low earth orbit is NASA,” Mango declares. “If NASA doesn’t do this, then it’s going to be very difficult for a company to come up with the funding that you need to develop a rocket and a spacecraft. Unlike airlines with their thousands of airplanes, we are talking about probably a small number of vehicles to be built. So, the amount of money it takes to get through [the development stages] also must be borne by the government.

“In the end, we need missions to the International Space Station, but [the partners] might very well have missions to other low-earth-orbit destinations that will be created by doing all this work,” he observes.

Mango states that NASA aims ultimately to select more than one partner to provide human access to orbit. “It would be beneficial to the country—and to the world—if we can have multiple solutions to the same problem.”

The U.S. companies developing commercial manned spacecraft are serious about the effort, one company official notes. It provides NASA with the opportunity to reduce costs for access to the space station, and the savings realized by the agency could be redirected into more adventurous space missions—which is a goal cited by the Augustine committee report.

These companies largely have opted for one of two designs: spaceplanes that are smaller, less sophisticated versions of the shuttle; or capsules similar to Orion or the lunar Apollo. Winged spaceplanes offer more mission flexibility, especially in terms of re-entry, while capsules are simpler to develop and build and offer greater survivability during failure scenarios.

Mango weighs in on the two choices. “A capsule design buys you a lot; it doesn’t buy you everything you might want. A winged design can buy you a number of other things, but then you deal with some mass penalties because you have more structure in your system. So, there are tradeoffs that each of the companies must make about which designs they think are going to meet the goals of getting a crew to the space station as well as any other low-earth-orbit capability they might have.”

One firm that has stood out in the commercial race for space is Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, of Hawthorne, California. The company is developing a family of launch vehicles and orbital spacecraft, and it currently is funded under the COTS space agreement.

SpaceX stands out because it already has launched and recovered an orbital spacecraft, known as Dragon, from atop its reusable Falcon 9 booster in December. Built around a capsule design, Dragon can carry either cargo or up to seven crew members into low earth orbit. The December test featured an unmanned capsule that conducted orbital maneuvers for about three hours before returning to Earth.

The Dragon spacecraft is structurally identical for manned and unmanned missions. For flying cargo to the space station, the capsule would be configured with a modular rack system designed to space shuttle mid-locker specifications. The crewed version would be outfitted with couches, controls with manual override capability and upgraded life support.

Dragon returns to Earth by parachuting into the ocean, and SpaceX would provide splashdown recovery services if NASA adopts the spacecraft for use as a space station transport vehicle. Curry notes that the end of the shuttle program also eliminates the only known way of returning large objects, such as major space station experiments or hardware, to Earth. The successful demonstration of SpaceX’s recent Dragon mission has illustrated that most of the down-mass requirements can be met by autonomous vehicles.

With this recent end-to-end mission success, SpaceX is asking NASA to combine the objectives of the next two required demonstration flights into a single test flight, after which the company would apply for flight certification.

Another company that has received funding in the COTS effort is Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Virginia. However, this funding is for unmanned space station resupply. Orbital now is applying for CCDev 2 funding for a crew vehicle.

Orbital’s proposed commercial crew vehicle would be a spaceplane—a “blended lifting body”—that is a different design than its COTS cargo vehicle, which is a capsule. The spaceplane would be launched atop an expendable launch vehicle such as an Atlas V and return to Earth with a conventional runway landing. It would carry four astronauts into low earth orbit.

Orbital has assembled an international team to build the spaceplane. Thales Alenia Space would build the vehicle’s pressurized crew compartment; Northrop Grumman is the lead airframe structures designer; Honeywell and Draper Laboratory are responsible for human-rated avionics, and United Launch Alliance is responsible for the craft’s baseline launch vehicle.

An already extant CCDev partnering agreement features a spaceplane offered by Sierra Nevada Corporation’s SpaceDev subsidiary in Littleton, Colorado. SpaceDev is offering its Dream Chaser spaceplane, which is based on the NASA HL-20 lifting body vehicle. The company received $20 million in CCDev funding, and it is applying for CCDev 2 support.

As with other spaceplanes, Dream Chaser would launch vertically and land on a conventional runway. One advantage it would have over capsule designs is that it would offer low re-entry loads—less than 1.5 G-forces. According to the company, it would employ a hybrid propulsion system using fuel that is non-toxic and storable.

In December, SpaceDev was joined in its endeavor by Virgin Galactic, which is aiming to build the world’s first spaceline. Its spacecraft, consisting of a winged mothership and a passenger vehicle, are designed to hurl tourists more than 60 miles above the Earth in a sub-orbital flight. Virgin Galactic is joining forces with SpaceDev for the potential of orbital tourism, and it may offer the use of one of its motherships to SpaceDev for conducting Dream Chaser atmospheric flight tests.

Another company that is working on a crew vehicle through CCDev funding is Boeing Space Exploration, Houston, Texas. Its design can fly on different expendable launch vehicles, such as Delta, Atlas or Falcon. Known as CST-100, the spacecraft is capsule-based, 4.5 meters in diameter—larger than Apollo, but smaller than the original Orion design. It can carry seven passengers and is designed to return to Earth on land, using parachutes for descent and airbags to cushion the landing.

Keith Reiley, deputy program manager for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, explains that his company has been working this concept off and on for several years. One year ago, his company bid successfully for $18 million of the $50 million CCDev funding from NASA request for proposals (RFP).

Simplicity and cost are the main reasons that Boeing opted for a capsule design instead of a spaceplane, Reiley says. The capsule is being designed to be reused about 10 times, although its service module would be discarded in each flight.

The design has reached its systems definition review level of detail, and several risk-reduction capabilities have been demonstrated. NASA provided information and comments to help improve the design. NASA is providing standards for human-rating a spacecraft for flight to the space station, Reiley offers, but more detail is needed.

Reiley notes that Bigelow Aerospace, which is designing a space station built out of inflatable modules (see box, below), has helped Boeing with its spacecraft design. The Bigelow orbiting complex would be a potential customer of the Boeing spacecraft, he notes.

This year, Boeing is aiming to continue its work under a $200 million NASA RFP. Continued development of the spacecraft depends on the company receiving NASA funding, Reiley allows. If Boeing receives that funding and proceeds with spacecraft development, it must deliver ready-to-fly hardware for three test flights around 2013. With this aggressive schedule, Boeing estimates that its spacecraft could deliver service to customers in 2015, Reiley says.

And then there is Orion. Its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Littleton, continues development of the proposed government-contracted spacecraft. It originally was planned to carry six people into low earth orbit and beyond, potentially to the Moon and Mars. The capsule was designed to be used a total of 10 times before replacement.

The Augustine report estimated that the cost of launching Orion atop its planned booster, the Ares, would run about $1 billion per launch, even with Orion’s limited reusability. Accordingly, it was slated for cancellation. However, not only is Orion still in the game, Curry says, but Lockheed Martin also is looking at building a commercial variant of Orion known as Orion Light.

Mango believes that the metric for CCDev success will be multiple partners through development to be completed toward the end of fiscal year 2016. A spacecraft must be safe and must fly by 2016, and NASA would have multiple partners launching crews into space. “The next American-flagged vehicle to bring our astronauts into space is going to be through this commercial crew program,” he declares. “I clearly believe we can make this happen. And, I clearly believe that we are in the front to try to close the gap of an American system to get us into low earth orbit.

“We’re not doing it as NASA,” he continues. “We’re doing it clearly as a partnership; and you have a partnership of NASA saying, ‘How can we do this together?’ That’s a big difference.”

Curry offers that the tipping point for the maturity of the commercial space industry will come when commercial vehicles take into orbit people who are not going to the space station. “When these providers sell their services to people besides or in addition to NASA, then you’ll know that it’s a real market,” he says. That way, if NASA decides to stop using the commercial sector for orbital access, the spacecraft still will have uses and customers.

Inflation Is Good for This Proposed Space Station

One U.S. company is striving to build a commercial space station out of inflatable modules. Bigelow Aerospace, North Las Vegas, Nevada, is designing what it describes as “expandable spacecraft” that could serve as adjuncts to existing spacecraft or the building blocks for an entire complex in low earth orbit.

Building on years of experience designing expandable space modules, the company’s plans currently call for its base module, known as Sundancer, to be launched mid-decade. This module, Sundancer One, then would be visited by company astronauts in a commercial crew capsule, after which a supplemental power bus and docking node would be launched to dock with Sundancer One. Then, Sundancer Two would arrive and dock with the node. A habitation module known as BA330, based on the earlier Nautilus space module, would be added as the third major module. This configuration, which would offer 690 cubic meters of pressurized volume, is designated Space Complex Alpha.

Another version the company is proposing would nearly double the available pressurized volume to 1,320 cubic meters. Designated Space Complex Bravo, the configuration would consist of four BA330 modules attached to two large propulsion buses with docking nodes.

Human occupation of the Bigelow space station will require a functioning commercial crew vehicle. The company is working with Boeing on its development of the CST-100 to ensure compatibility. When fully assembled, the Bigelow station could be used for applications ranging from research to space tourism.

Orbital Sciences:
Lockheed Martin:
Bigelow Aerospace:


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