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Falcon 9 and Dragon
SpaceX’s Dragon cargo spacecraft is mated to its Falcon 9 launcher in this photo released Saturday by SpaceX founder Elon Musk on Twitter. (credit: E. Musk)

The critical year for commercial cargo and crew


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In 2005, then NASA administrator Michael Griffin announced plans to support the development of commercial systems to transport cargo, and potentially humans, to and from the International Space Station. The idea of this concept, which became the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, was to create a new market for commercial space activities, allowing companies to meet NASA’s needs—and those of other potential customers—at a lower cost than a traditional government system, freeing up NASA resources for exploration missions beyond Earth orbit.

Nearly seven years later, after some delays and false starts, that vision is set to become reality. In the next few months the two companies with funded COTS agreements from NASA, Orbital Sciences Corporation and SpaceX, are set to fly demonstration missions of their cargo vehicles to the ISS, with regular operational cargo flights to follow by year’s end. If successful, they will help secure not just their futures, but the future of the ISS as NASA and its partners seek to demonstrate the capabilities and utility of the space station. If these companies fall short, though, their setbacks could cast a shadow on efforts to develop commercial crew systems that are fighting for funding today.

Progress report

At the FAA’s 15th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference, held in Washington, DC, earlier this month in cooperation with the AIAA, representatives of Orbital and SpaceX, along with NASA, discussed the progress those companies were making on their COTS efforts and what they hoped to accomplish over the coming year.

“We’re going to launch when we’re ready, and when the vehicle is ready, because we want very much for this mission to be a success,” said SpaceX’s Reisman.

Of the two COTS companies, SpaceX is farther along. In 2010 they performed the first two launches of their Falcon 9 rocket, including a December 2010 flight of its Dragon spacecraft, which completed nearly two orbits of the Earth before splashing down in the Pacific. That flight, designated C1, was the first of three demonstration flights planned by SpaceX under its COTS agreement with NASA.

Progress since then, though, has been slower. Originally SpaceX was to perform two more COTS demonstration flights: C2, where Dragon would approach the ISS but remain a safe distance away; and C3, where the Dragon would rendezvous with the station, allowing astronauts on the station to use its robotic arm to grapple the Dragon and berth it to the ISS. Last year the company said it was seeking to coming the remaining two COTS missions, C2 and C3, into a single flight. That resulted in protracted discussions with NASA and other ISS partners—including rumblings that the Russians in particular had reservations about such a move—before NASA announced in December the combined C2/C3 mission would proceed in February.

However, technical issues with the Dragon—specifically, a need for additional software testing for the vehicle—have delayed that mission further, now to the latter half of April. “We’re going to launch when we’re ready, and when the vehicle is ready, because we want very much for this mission to be a success,” said Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut who left the space agency last year to work for SpaceX.

Once that mission does lift off, it will carry out a series of maneuvers and demonstrations planned for the original C2 mission, including the ability to abort approaches to the ISS and communicate with the station, said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office. If the Dragon successfully meets those C2 requirements, it will move on to the C3 requirements, including approach and retreat maneuvers, leading up to berthing to the station. The Dragon will carry some nonessential “demonstration cargo” that will be transferred to the ISS. It will also be loaded with station cargo for return to Earth.

Lindenmoyer said that some of the C2 milestones will be demonstrated in the first couple of days after launch, as the Dragon matches orbits with the ISS. The rest will be performed on the third day of the mission, while in the vicinity of the station; if successful, it could start carrying out the C3 objectives, leading to berthing, as soon as the mission’s fourth day. He added, though, that NASA and SpaceX would take additional time if needed. “If we need to take a closer look at the performance of some of those demonstrations, there is the ability to do that as well,” he said. Once berthed, he said, the Dragon will remain at the station for one to two weeks, depending on the schedule of station activities.

Neither Reisman nor Lindenmoyer went into much detail about the issues that have forced SpaceX to push back their launch from early February—the date announced in December when NASA gave its formal approval for the combined C2/C3 mission—to late April, but other comments from space agency and company officials have focused on the need to perform additional testing and verification of the Dragon’s software to ensure that it can safely operate in the vicinity of ISS. SpaceX is making progress, though: on Saturday SpaceX CEO and CTO Elon Musk tweeted a photo of the Dragon spacecraft mated to its Falcon 9 rocket. “Dragon spaceship and Falcon 9 rocket just completed final assembly at Cape Canaveral,” he said.

Orbital Sciences has also suffered its share of delays in the launch of its Antares (known prior to December as the Taurus II) rocket and Cygnus spacecraft, but those issues have been more down to Earth—literally. Problems with the construction of the Antares launch site at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, Virginia, have delayed a planned test flight of the Antares rocket, as well as the sole planned COTS demonstration mission of the Cygnus spacecraft that will follow.

At the FAA conference, company and NASA officials made only oblique references to the pad construction delays. “We are behind the schedule we had hoped to be on when we started all of this, but that’s kind of the business we’re in,” said Orbital senior vice president Frank Culbertson. In a speech the day before at the conference, NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier said that the team working on the launch site “had a lot of challenges that might not have been immediately evident when they signed up to this great idea” of building a new launch complex.

While Orbital’s progress has been slowed by pad construction, once it’s done in April “we’ll have only ourselves to blame if we miss the schedule,” said Orbital CEO Thompson.

In a conference call last week with financial analysts to discuss the company’s latest earnings announcement, though, Orbital CEO David Thompson addressed the spaceport problems directly. “The net effect of these problems has been to push out our schedule for on-pad stage testing and the first launch by some eight to nine months over the past year,” he said. Orbital has taken more of a hands-on role to get the pad finished, he said, taking over the day-to-day management of the launch complex construction and assigning 20 people to oversee that work.

Thompson, though, was confident that once the pad was ready, Orbital would be ready to quickly move ahead with pad tests of the Antares rocket and those initial launches. “We’ve made good progress in terms of preparing the Antares test vehicle such that as soon as the pad is ready for us we will be prepared to transfer the vehicle to the pad,” he said, adding the first vehicle would be ready to go to the pad as soon as the end of this coming week or early the following week—although the pad itself won’t be.

Once the pad is complete and Orbital takes possession of it—a milestone planned for April—the company plans to move quickly. The inaugural Antares rocket, carrying only a demonstration payload much like the first Falcon 9 launch in June 2010, will be moved to the pad for a “hot fire” test in May. That launch is planned for June, followed by, some time in the third quarter, with the COTS demonstration mission. On that mission the Antares will launch a Cygnus cargo spacecraft that will approach and berth with the station, like the Dragon C2/C3 mission planned for this spring.

Once that transfer of the pad happens in the coming weeks, though, Thompson acknowledged that the onus will be on them to deliver. “Once the pad is turned over to us at the end of April, the work from that point through the first stage hot firing and the first launch are pretty much under our control,” he said in the conference call. “The following couple months we’ll have only ourselves to blame if we miss the schedule.”

Antares launch site at Wallops
The Antares launch site at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia is nearing completion after considerable delays. (credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.)

Implications for the station and commercial crew

Should those launches take place as planned, both companies will be ready to move on to operational cargo delivery (and, in the case of SpaceX, cargo return) later this year. A slide of scheduled ISS missions displayed at the FAA conference showed that the first SpaceX cargo flight under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract is scheduled for August, and the first Orbital CRS flight in October (Orbital itself says it’s planning that flight for some time in the fourth quarter).

Cygnus and Dragon will be added to a complex mix of station operations that includes cargo flights by Europe’s ATV, Japan’s HTV, and Russia’s Progress cargo spacecraft, as well as the Soyuz spacecraft that are currently the only ways to transport crews to and from the ISS. “Over this next year, station is going to look a lot like a spaceport with these vehicles coming in and out,” said Kathryn Lueders, manager of the transportation integration office for the ISS program at NASA.

“We’ve got it there, we’ve built it, but we’re not really sure how we’re going to use it and what we’re going to do with it. And that is an unbelievable mistake on our part,” Gerstenmaier said of the ISS.

While that growing fleet of resupply vehicles can cause challenges in terms of scheduling their arrivals and departures, the additions of Cygnus and Dragon are worth any headaches for station logisticians. The spacecraft will play a vital role in keeping food, water, and other supplies fully stocked on the station, filling a gap created by the retirement of the Space Shuttle last year. The last shuttle mission, STS-135, gave the station margin through 2012 for Cygnus and Dragon to enter service, but other issues, notably the failure last August of a Progress spacecraft, have upped the ante. “I flew STS-135 so that we’d have a nice one-year transition for the cargo providers to come online,” said Gerstenmaier. “I didn’t I would need it for the Russian Progress system.”

Cygnus and Dragon also will be key to enhancing the utilization of the ISS by transportation experiments and related equipment to the station—and, in the case of Dragon, returning experiments back to Earth, a capability now only available from the Soyuz spacecraft, and only in very limited amounts. That capability is vital to NASA’s efforts to get broader use of the station for research and demonstrate its value, perhaps allowing the ISS to remain operational beyond its current notional retirement date of 2020.

“What a tremendous research facility this is,” said Gerstenmaier of the ISS. But, he added, “we’ve got it there, we’ve built it, but we’re not really sure how we’re going to use it and what we’re going to do with it. And that is an unbelievable mistake on our part.” He asked the audience at the FAA conference “to figure out how we can effectively use this research facility.”

In addition to supporting operations of ISS, commercial cargo will play a major role in shaping perceptions about NASA’s commercial crew effort. Successful flights by Orbital Science and SpaceX could reassure skeptics that commercial providers have the capability to send spacecraft safely to the ISS, but failures or delays could make it more difficult for commercial crew proponents to win funding to keep the program on track.

Those perceptions were highlighted in a speech at the FAA conference by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chairs the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee. Acknowledging that Congress fell fall short of the administration request for commercial crew funding in the fiscal year 2012 budget—the administration requested $850 million but the final appropriations bill passed by Congress allocated only $406 million—he said he would work to get funding in 2013 closer to the administration’s request of nearly $830 million. “We will get it on up in the appropriations coming up this year,” he said, “but there’s always a struggle.”

The relative inexperience of companies like SpaceX, the only firm with both commercial cargo and crew awards, made some people uncomfortable, Nelson said. He described how some Apollo-era astronauts have been “very suspicious” of SpaceX's claims, but, “once you inserted in there the name of another competitor, which was a name they were familiar with—Boeing—the tension in their faces would relax.” He added, though, that SpaceX’s COTS flight, if it does launch as currently planned in late April, will take place “right at the right time, because that’s about the time decisions are starting to be made in regards to the appropriations.”

Nelson said that that SpaceX’s COTS flight, if it does launch as currently planned in late April, will take place “right at the right time, because that’s about the time decisions are starting to be made in regards to the appropriations.”

Comments like that put some pressure on the commercial cargo companies, particularly SpaceX, to successfully fly their COTS missions in the next several months. “As you can tell from Senator Nelson’s talk earlier today, no pressure,” said SpaceX’s Reisman during a panel that immediately followed Nelson’s talk. “We’re trying to take a little of the pressure off by pointing out we’ve already had a lot of success, especially with that first flight of the Dragon.”

NASA officials, though, remind that these COTS flights are demonstration missions—test flights—and thus any problems during them should not be unexpected. “We all need to understand that this is a test flight program, not an operational program, and we have the ability and capacity to try again” if something goes wrong, said Lindenmoyer.

“I’m a little worried about the importance of the COTS demonstration missions. Our stakeholders are, I think, maybe placing an inappropriate amount of importance on the upcoming demonstration missions,” said Gerstenmaier. Having problems during test flights, and learning from them, is “okay”, he said, and could even be more cost-effective that performing additional rounds of ground testing. “We’ve got to openly talk about the risks associated with what we’re doing.”

If the COTS flights are successfully—eventually, if not initially—they will go a long way towards securing the future of the ISS as well as smooth the path ahead for commercial crew, another essential element of keeping the ISS operational through the end of this decade and perhaps beyond. “This is a big year” for NASA’s commercial cargo effort, said Lindenmoyer, a comment that might well be an understatement.


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