Friday, September 16, 2011

Has Russia Been Blocking Dragon Docking At The ISS?

Russian Comments on SpaceX Flight

A news report surfaced at the Ria Novosti site with the headline "Private U.S. capsule not to dock with ISS".  Just as with U.S. media outlets, the substance of the article was not nearly as definitive as the attention-grabbing headlines.

photo SpaceX
A short time later, NASA announced via twitter that the story was incorrect, and that no decision had yet been made regarding the SpaceX test flight slated for later this year.

The Russian news story tries to connect the dots between old news and recent comments from Vladimir Solovyov, head of the Russian segment of the ISS mission control.  He did state that "a flight by the Dragon to the ISS, but without berthing, has tentatively been scheduled for the end of this year. Though, I do not know, whether it'll fly or not," which was true even before the failed Progress launch on August 24th (NASA has only officially approved two separate flights for the Dragon to the ISS, one to rendezvous, the second to actually dock.  Approval for combining the two flights has been pending for some time).

What jumps out of this story are the comments that are behind the headline, indicating that Russia will not allow the SpaceX vehicle to dock with the ISS unless its safety is fully tested:

"We will not issue docking permission unless the necessary level of reliability and safety is proven," said Alexei Krasov, head of the human spaceflight department of Roscosmos. "So far we have no proof that this spacecraft duly comply with the accepted norms of spaceflight safety."

If anyone has been wondering what was taking NASA so long to grant formal approval to a combination of the COTS-2 and COTS-3 flights, I think we have our answer: Russia is not convinced the Dragon is not a threat to the safety of their personnel on the ISS. In light of the current crew situation aboard the ISS and the delayed arrival of astronauts trained to deal with the Dragon, what might be SpaceX's best course?  I would like to see the Falcon 9/Dragon launch go forward on November 30th, and do so as the scheduled COTS-2 flight (i.e., NOT dock with the ISS).  Doubts about the Falcon 9 following the engine anomaly which occurred during its last test flight could be put to rest with an extra flight, and the COTS-3 flight could proceed early next year once the ISS is fully crewed with the right personnel.

Obviously the cost for two flights is at least double that of a combined flight, but the additional experience would be valuable for SpaceX.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

NASA Awards $3 Million to Further Research in Solar Electric Propulsion

NASA today announced awards totaling about $3 million to five companies to "develop concepts for demonstrating solar electric propulsion in space."  Each of these companies is expected to produce a report intended to contribute to a mission concept to demonstrate solar electric propulsion technologies.  NASA expects that such propulsion systems will be a part of effective payload delivery to high Earth orbits and beyond.

These awards are part of the first of four Point of Departure (POD) missions from NASA's Flagship Technology Demonstration (FTD) Program, and are the result of proposals submitted in response to a Broad Agency Announcement issued on June 17th.  The mission is intended to show that Solar Electric  Propulsion (SEP) technology could reduce Earth-Mars transit time from months to weeks.

The other three POD missions are:
  • On-orbit storage and transfer of cryogenic fuels (2015)
  • Inflatable habitat module attached to ISS (2016)
  • Use of aerocapture to land large payloads on Mars (2018)
More in-depth information on the FTD Program can be found at Hobby Space.

Let's take a closer look at the first of these companies selected for the concept phase of the first mission (follow-on posts will cover the other award recipients).

Analytical Mechanics Associates Inc., in Hampton, Va.

AMA has worked on commercial and government projects since 1962, providing engineering consulting and services.  In addition to being selected for this mission, they were also selected to participate in the concept phase of the cryogen fuel storage and transfer mission in August of this year.

They are keeping their work on SEP close to the vest, with the exception of a couple of intriguing videos.  The first video is an animation showing a SEP- driven spacecraft heading away from Earth toward the Moon, and the second depicts the SEP Stack arriving at a near-Earth asteroid.

AMA's bread and butter looks to be the development of anaylsis, studies, and recommendations to primarily space-related customers, so this work is righht up their alley.

The State of Heavy Lifting

With NASA's commitment today  to a design for their new Heavy Lift Vehicle (HLV), it seems like a good time to review the current state of heavy lift capability and development.

If you wanted to get a large payload to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) today, what are your HLV options?

United Launch Alliance (ULA) provides the Delta IV Heavy, which is capable of placing nearly 23 metric tons (mT) in LEO.  The Titan IV-B can lift 21 mT, Russia's Proton M flings 21 metric tons to LEO, and the Ariane 5 ES can deliver 20 mT.  Japan offers the H-IIB, which can place 19 metric tons in LEO, and China's Long March 3B has a maximum LEO payload of 13 mT.

On the near horizon, here are the likely new heavy launch options:

  • China's Long March 5 (CZ-5) family of launchers will sport a maximum capacity to LEO of 25 mT, with an initial test launch date sometime in 2014.
  • SpaceX's Falcon Heavy will carry 53 mT to LEO, and their manifest says they plan their first launch at Vandenberg in 2012.
  • NASA's SLS will initially provide 70 metric tons of payload to LEO, with the first development launches "targeted for late 2017."
While everyone is getting excited about NASA's new Space Launch System and its promised ability to carry humans to the asteroid belt and Mars, let's keep some perspective.  NASA estimates that getting the new launcher and the Orion spacecraft ready for an initial development 2017 launch is going to cost U.S. taxpayers between $17 billion and $22 billion.  And if they are already aiming for a late 2017 date, anyone in the aerospace industry knows that means 2018 for sure.

SpaceX, on the other hand, plans to have their Falcon Heavy ready for its first test flight in late 2012, a full five years earlier.  Oh, and SpaceX is already advertising launch prices in the $80-125 million range.  That's "million," not "billion."

So why are we gutting the rest of NASA's dwindling budget to fund the SLS?

NASA Announces Space Launch System Configuration

NASA adminstrator Charles Bolden, in a joint press conference with Senators Hutchison and Nelson, announced the intended design for the new Space Launch System.


  • The configuration will consist of a core stage and an upper stage both powered by a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system, and booster stages that will be open to competition.
  • The core stage will be powered by the RS-25D/E engines from the Space Shuttle, and the upper stage will be powered by the J-2X engine (a derivative design of the Saturn V main engines).
  • Solid Rocket boosters will initially be used for the booster stages during developmental flights, but the ultimate design of the booster stages will be determined as part of a competition.
  • The initial lift capacity is 70 metric tons to LEO, with later versions providing as much as 130 mT.  this is the most powerful U.S. launcher since the Saturn V (127 mT to LEO).
  • The first developmental flight is targeted for the end of 2017.
This modular architecture was chosen because it leverages existing capabilities, and its evolvable development approach allows the high-cost development activities occur early in the program.  Bolden stated that "the decision to go with the same fuel system for the core and the upper stage was based on a NASA analysis demonstrating that use of common components can reduce costs and increase flexibility."

NASA has already updated their websiste for the SLS, so more information is available there.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Next Progress Launch Scheduled for October 30th

Progress Freighter (photo ITAR-TASS)
ITAR-TASS reports the Russian space agency has announced a launch date of October 30th for their next Progress supply ship, bound for the ISS.

Assuming this flight is successful, they have scheduled the next manned Soyuz flight to the ISS for November 12, arriving in LEO only days before the remaining ISS crew of 3 will need to leave.  ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini noted in late August that November 19th is the last possible date for de-manning the station.

Summary of NASA/ATK Commercial Crew Announcement

At 3:00pm EDT today, NASA and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) made a joint announcement regarding a possible acceleration of LEO crew transportation (see the Press Release here).

Ed Mango, NASA's Commercial Crew Program Manager, began his remarks by pointing out that Commercial Crew is making making steady progress, with development remaining on time, and on budget.  He then went to announce, as expected by many, that CC has entered into an unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA) that will allow NASA and ATK to share information, and it grants ATK access to Kennedy Space Center during Liberty development.  The agreement will run though next spring, and will include a series of milestones agreed to by both parties.  This SAA puts ATK in a position to be ready to compete in the next CCdev phase.

Kent Rominger from ATK expounded on the virtues of Liberty, noting that both stages have extensive flight experience.  The first stage is an SRB from the STS, and the upper stage is the Ariane 5 Core stage (45 consecutive successful flights for the upper stage).

Mr. Rominger answered the question "Why Liberty?" with the following points:
  • They believe it is the safest, most reliable means to put crew on orbit.
  • Liberty can lift 44,000 lb to LEO.
  • The White House's new Space Policy calls for expanded international cooperation, and that's what Liberty is (a U.S. and European commercial partnership)
  • This will bring jobs into Florida, and take advantage of existing infrastructure and talent.
  • Liberty is extremely simple.  One engine on first stage, one on the second.  Minimize things that can go wrong, so you minimize opportunities for a failure.
  • No other provider can match our value, or our safety record.
During the Q&A session, a few interesting points were made:
  1. Kent Rominger referred to NASA's human rating requirements as "onerous."  Nevertheless, the two stages of Liberty were each developed from the beginning as parts of launch systems intended for human flight, and they believe they can meet the requirements.
  2. Ed Mango made it clear that NASA is NOT interested in doing spacecraft integration (crew vehicle to launcher).  They will give their business to commercial teams that offer a fully integrated solution.
  3. Kent Rominger stated that ATK will continue working on Liberty and maturing the system whether they are recipients of CCDev 3 funds or not.
  4. Ed Mango: We want multiple providers for carrying crew to LEO.  That assumes that there is sufficient funding at NASA to support this.  We'll always have a Russian capability available, and we won't say no to that.
I'll follow up with some analysis later.  Here's a video to bring you up to speed on the Liberty:

Friday, September 9, 2011

Is ATK the Newest Member of the CCDev Club?

Artist's Concept of
Liberty Launcher (ATK)
Next Tuesday, NASA and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) will jointly announce an agreement that could "accelerate the availability of U.S. commercial crew transportation capabilities."  It will not be carried live on NASA Television.

In the wake of the Russia's grounding of Soyuz launchers (effectively catching the U.S. manned space program with their pants down), the urgency to find alternatives is growing.

In April, ATK failed to receive CCDev-2 funds for the development of its Liberty launch vehicle. Undeterred, they decided to continue development of Liberty as a human-rated launcher in anticipation of future business with NASA (see SpaceFlightNow article).

I'm just speculating of course, but it seems highly likely that NASA and ATK have entered into a Space Act Agreement (SAA) to include the Liberty in the CCDev program.  Whether they will receive NASA funding, or work under an unfunded SAA (as ULA is doing in their efforts to man-rate the Atlas V, according to Aviation Week) is yet to be seen.

Even though the Liberty scored higher than the Atlas V in the CCDev-2 evaluations, none of the CCDev crew spacecraft competitors agreed to fly their craft atop the Liberty, according to Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc.  Are they nervous about putting people on top of a solid fuel booster?

I suspect NASA is trying to keep as many manned launch options as possible.  While no rocket is currently human-rated (even STS wasn't), The Falcon 9, Delta IV, Atlas V and now the Liberty are all viable options.  Increasing the competition may be the single biggest contributor to the hoped-for acceleration of the program.

UPDATE: I misread the press release-- the announcement wil not be carried on NASA TV.  Video highlights will be available afterward in NASA TV's Video File segment.

UPDATE 9/12: NASA has now decided to go ahead and broadcast the announcement live on NASA TV after all.  That's tomorrow (Tuesday) at 3:00pm EDT.