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Falcon 9 hotfire
The Falcon 9 that will launch SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft performs a “hot fire” test of its nine first-stage engines on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral on April 30. (credit: SpaceX)

The big test

A test flight for SpaceX may also be a test for commercial crew

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In contemporary usage, the word “test” can have two deceptively similar, yet very different, definitions. One meaning refers to a kind of demonstration, a check to see if a particular product or service works as intended: testing software to look for bugs in the code, an engine test to see of a rocket motor works properly. The other meaning of test refers to a demonstration of one’s knowledge and capability, from a standardized test for college admissions or a graduate student’s orals. One is experiment; the other, examination.

Many perceive the mission as something of a test of the concept of commercial transport to the ISS, not just for cargo but also for crew, particularly as Congress debates the future of the commercial crew program.

The difference between those two meanings of “test” become clear in their implications in the event of failure. In the first kind of test, failure—in the sense of something not working as anticipated or desired—is often expected: that is, after all, why you conduct the test, to see what happened that shouldn’t have, and vice versa, and then take steps to rectify the problem. In the second test, failure can lead to lost opportunities in college admissions, career choices, and the like. The stakes seem so much higher in the second kind of test.

Both definitions of test are in use this week as SpaceX prepares to launch its Dragon spacecraft in the pre-dawn hours Saturday on a mission to the International Space Station. This is very much a test flight: a demonstration of whether the Dragon can safely approach and be berthed to the ISS, clearing the way for it to fulfill its role of ferrying cargo to and from the station. However, many perceive the mission as something of a test of the concept of commercial transport to the ISS, not just for cargo but also for crew, particularly as Congress debates the future of the commercial crew program.

Dragon’s test flight

The long-awaited mission will, if all goes well, combine the milestones of two separate missions, designated C2 and C3, originally planned as part of NASA’s award to SpaceX under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. This “C2+” mission will perform a series of maneuvers in the vicinity of the station—milestones from the original C2 mission—and, if all goes well, then approach the station, whose robot arm will grapple the spacecraft and berth it—milestones from the C3 mission.

That mission will begin with the launch of the Dragon on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral at 4:55 am EDT on Saturday, May 19. The launch window is instantaneous, leaving no margin for error in the event of a technical or meteorological issue during the countdown. Moreover, launch opportunities are only once every three days, something SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said at a press conference last month was designed to minimize the propellant Dragon will have to use to reach the ISS, maximizing the amount available for maneuvering in the station’s vicinity.

After the Falcon 9’s second stage places Dragon into an approximately 310 by 340 kilometer orbit, the spacecraft will spend two days gradually maneuvering towards the ISS. On Day 3 of the mission, Dragon will move to a position 2.5 kilometers below the ISS, then fly around the station before returning to that initial location, demonstrating its ability to precisely and safely fly in proximity to the ISS. As soon as the following day, pending approval from NASA, Dragon will approach the station, holding at positions 250 and then 30 meters from it, before moving to its “capture point” 10 meters below the station. At that point, the station’s Canadarm2 will grapple Dragon and berth it to the Earth-facing node on the station’s Harmony module.

Should all that go according to plan, the station’s crew will open the hatches between the station and Dragon the following day and start to unload the 520 kilograms of cargo it contains. While not an official cargo delivery flight under SpaceX’s separate Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, the Dragon is carrying some relatively nonessential cargo, including food and other supplies, as well as a laboratory module for NanoRacks, a company that provides access to the station for commercial and educational research.

“This is a test flight,” said Musk. “If we don’t succeed on berthing on this mission, then we have a couple of more missions later this year, and I think we’ll succeed on one of those.”

After about two weeks on the station, the Dragon will be loaded with 660 kilograms of cargo for return to Earth, including experiments and unneeded equipment. Dragon will undock, maneuver away from the station, and reenter, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California in much the same way that the first Dragon spacecraft did after its brief orbital test flight in December 2010 (see “2010: the year commercial human spaceflight made contact”, The Space Review, December 13, 2010).

All those milestones will be met, though, only if the mission goes exactly as planned. And both NASA and SpaceX officials have emphasized that this mission is a test flight, with the first opportunity in some cases to test key Dragon systems in space to see if they work the same way as they do in tests and simulations on the ground. “Demonstration launches are conducted to determine potential issues so that they might be addressed and—by their very nature—carry a significant risk,” SpaceX warns in the press kit for the mission, distributed late last week. “If any aspect of the mission is not successful, SpaceX will learn from the experience and try again.”

“This will be a very demanding mission,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at an April 16 press conference about the flight, recounting the various milestones they have to achieve. “We need to look at it as a test flight.”

Those challenges, particularly in the area of software testing, have pushed back the scheduled launch several times. At the time of the April 16 press conference, NASA and SpaceX said they were pretty much ready for an April 30 launch, pending closure of some software issues. A week later, though, the launch slipped because of the need for more software testing, pushing the launch back a week to May 7; the launch then slipped again because of software issues. Only late last week did SpaceX confirm the May 19 date for its launch.

“It’s hard, but we have a pretty good chance,” Musk said at that press conference. “This is a test flight. If we don’t succeed on berthing on this mission, then we have a couple of more missions later this year, and I think we’ll succeed on one of those.”

A test for commercial crew

While NASA and SpaceX have emphasized that this is a test flight, there is also the perception by some in the industry, particularly in Washington, of this mission as being a test for NASA’s approach to commercialize transportation to the ISS. The delays experienced by SpaceX as well as the other funded COTS company, Orbital Sciences Corporation—which recently postponed the initial test launch of its Antares (née Taurus II) rocket again, to the third quarter of this year—have heightened skepticism about the ability of commercial providers to take on these services. If it’s taking so long for companies to simply develop means to transport cargo to the station, they argue, can they be relied upon to handle crew transportation in both a timely and safe manner?

The most recent expression of that skepticism is language included in the report accompanying the House of Representatives’ version of the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) appropriations bill for fiscal year 2013. The bill gives the commercial crew program $500 million, $330 million below the administration’s request but at the level in NASA’s 2010 authorization bill. The report, though, was critical of NASA’s approach to running the program, which has involved awarding funded Space Act Agreements to several companies, among them SpaceX.

House appropriators argued that some of the money could, in effect, be wasted should companies drop out of the program. “[T]here is a risk of repeating the government's experience from last year’s bankruptcy of the solar energy firm Solyndra, in which the failure of a high risk, government subsidized development venture left taxpayers with no tangible benefit in exchange for their substantial investment,” the report claimed.

The House report language on NASA’s commercial crew program, said Rohrabacher, “requires an immediate downselect to a single program partner, which I do not believe is the best path to move forward.”

Appropriators said NASA should be focused on developing a crew transportation system as soon as possible, rather than “seeding” a commercial space industry. It called for an “immediate downselect” to a single company or, at most, two companies, with one company receiving the majority of the program funds. This approach, the report continued, should use conventional contracts rather than Space Act Agreements, which NASA had planned to do anyway last year until uncertainty about program funding led them to switch back to the agreements used in the first two phases of the program for the ongoing competition for the Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCap) phase (see “An about face for commercial crew”, The Space Review, December 19, 2011).

“With fewer companies remaining in the program, NASA could reduce its annual budget needs for the program and fund other priorities like planetary science, human exploration or aeronautics research,” the report stated. “In addition, an accelerated downselect would allow NASA to focus its remaining funds and technical assistance resources on the most promising contender, potentially enabling that competitor to produce a final capability faster than otherwise possible.”

As the full House debated the appropriations bill last Wednesday, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), perhaps the staunchest proponent of commercial spaceflight in Congress, expressed his frustration with both fellow members and NASA regarding commercial crew. “I believe it makes a flawed comparison between commercial crew program partners and the energy firm of Solyndra,” he said, referring to the report, in a colloquy with Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), the chairman of the appropriations CJS subcommittee. “In addition, it requires an immediate downselect to a single program partner, which I do not believe is the best path to move forward.”

Rohrabacher, though, was disappointed in how NASA has tried to sell the program. “NASA has not shared a clear, comprehensive management plan for the program, despite repeated requests,” he said. “Instead, they have made inconsistent and confusing statements abut the program’s purpose, timeline, design, cost, and procurement methods.” He added that he wanted to discuss unspecified “alternative approaches” with NASA that would address those concerns.

Wolf appeared willing to let Rohrabacher try to develop a better approach to the program. “I believe that despite our differences—and there may not really be that much of a difference—we share a common goal of providing reliable domestic access to the space station in the fastest, most cost-effective manner,” he said in response to Rohrabacher on the House floor.

Rohrabacher, in a statement issued after that discussion, summarized his concerns about the program. “To be clear, I do not support the approach laid out in Chairman Wolf’s report language. I believe ongoing and sustained competition to be essential to the success of the commercial crew program,” he said. “That said, I will be working with NASA to figure out how best to address Chairman Wolf’s concerns and achieve the goals we all share.”

A day after that discussion, NASA administrator Charles Bolden rose to the defense of the program, particularly the need for competition. “Despite a bipartisan agreement to ensure American astronauts are traveling into space on US-built spacecraft as soon as possible, some want to shortchange this job-creating initiative and limit competition in the commercial space arena,” he said in prepared remarks at a meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) in Washington.

“Ending competition by down-selecting to a sole commercial space company could double the cost of developing a privately built human spaceflight system and it will leave us in the same position we find ourselves today—having only one option for getting our astronauts to the space station,” Bolden said. “We are hopeful we can work to resolve these issues and keep this important initiative on track.”

This debate comes as the landscape for commercial crew is changing. Even as SpaceX prepares its Dragon cargo test flight, and the other companies with funded agreements—Blue Origin, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada—make progress on their designs, a new company entered the competition last week. ATK, which announced last year its plans for the Liberty rocket in cooperation with EADS Astrium, said it was now proposing a full-fledged crew transportation system, with a capsule it would develop to launch atop the Liberty rocket.

“Despite a bipartisan agreement to ensure American astronauts are traveling into space on US-built spacecraft as soon as possible, some want to shortchange this job-creating initiative and limit competition in the commercial space arena,” Bolden said.

ATK and Astrium had originally proposed Liberty as a launch vehicle for one of the other commercial crew providers, but lost out in the second round of Commercial Crew Development (CCDev-2) awards last year from NASA, and the companies that did get CCDev-2 funds selected other vehicles: SpaceX using its own Falcon 9, while Blue Origin, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada all choosing the Atlas 5. ATK and Astrium are instead proposing their own crew transportation system, using a capsule based on a composite crew capsule developed by ATK for testing by NASA during Constellation, while Lockheed Martin is providing a slimmed-down version of the service module it’s developing for Orion.

ATK and Astrium officials, at the announcement during the Spacecraft Technology Expo in Los Angeles on Wednesday, said that Liberty could be ready soon: initial test launches of the abort system would take place in 2014, with test flights of the full system in 2015, the second carrying a two-person test crew. “We have our first test crew picked out,” Kent Rominger, ATK vice president and program manager for Liberty, said, without divulging their names.

Rominger also played up the design safety of the system, saying the risk of a fatal accident should be less than 1 in 1,200, compared to an estimated 1 in 200 for the Space Shuttle. Although the Liberty rocket looks similar to the Ares 1 from the now-cancelled Constellation program, he said it was free of the thrust oscillation concerns that rocket had. “Ares 1 was really a system tuning problem," he said. “We can confidently say we don't have a problem.”

The companies see commercial crew as the initial market for the system, branching out from there into cargo, tourism, and even the launch of government satellites. Even if they aren’t funded in NASA’s CCiCap competition, Rominger said, they will continue development, albeit at a slower pace than the scheduled they announced. “There’s no way I can meet a schedule like that without an award from NASA,” he said.

It’s in this environment of Congressional skepticism and increased competition that SpaceX is carrying out its test flight to the ISS. A complete success will certainly demonstrate its capabilities—at least for cargo—and perhaps ameliorate some of the concerns and skepticism about the ability of companies to handle such missions under this approach. But does anything short of that, be it the Dragon failing to reach orbit or not quite being able to berth with the station, represent a failure for SpaceX, NASA, and/or commercial crew and cargo in general? It may all depend on how you define the word “test”.