The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Dragon and K-1
As SpaceX starts developing the Dragon spacecraft (left) and Rocketplane Kistler restarts work on the K-1 (right, docking with the ISS), both are looking ahead to moving from cargo deliveries to the station to ferrying crews. (credit: SpaceX/RpK)

COTS winners start showing their hands

During the run-up to the August announcement by NASA regarding which companies would receive awards under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration program, few details were available about the proposals that the six finalists—Andrews Space, Rocketplane Kistler (RpK), SpaceDev, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), SPACEHAB, and Transformational Space (t/Space)—had submitted to NASA. That secrecy was understandable, given the sensitive nature of the competition at that time. Even SpaceX, perhaps the most open about discussing the details of its proposal, had its limits on what it would reveal: when asked for a copy of his slides from a speech he gave at the Mars Society conference in early August (see “Dragon uncloaked”, The Space Review, August 14, 2006), company CEO Elon Musk said he would share them—after the COTS awards were announced.

Now, more than two months after NASA tapped RpK and SpaceX for COTS awards, the two companies are now providing more information about exactly what they are offering NASA. Last week, representatives of both companies shared their plans on moving ahead with their COTS programs during presentations at a public meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) at FAA Headquarters in Washington. While the broad brushstrokes of their proposals were familiar to many, both companies shed light on some of the technical and programmatic details of their bids, and some of the issues they face with NASA in the near future.

Seeking Option D

Because SpaceX had already revealed many of the technical details about its Dragon capsule, to be launched atop the Falcon 9 rocket the company is also developing, SpaceX chief counsel Tim Hughes didn’t have that much new to share with COMSTAC attendees about their COTS proposal. Dragon, he confirmed, would be able to carry 1,400 kilograms of pressurized cargo and 1,700 kilograms of unpressurized cargo to the ISS and a similar amount of “downmass” from the station back to the Earth. “This provides NASA with a cost per kilogram to the International Space Station that is comparable to that provided by the Russians right now, but using almost an entirely domestic technology base,” he said.

SpaceX’s Dragon “provides NASA with a cost per kilogram to the International Space Station that is comparable to that provided by the Russians right now, but using almost an entirely domestic technology base,” hughes said.

As part of the COTS demonstration program, SpaceX will carry out three missions to prove to NASA that it can safely and successfully carry cargo to and from the ISS. The first demo flight, currently scheduled for the third quarter of 2008, is what Hughes calls a “core functionality” flight, designed to test the key subsystems of the Dragon spacecraft, including entry, descent, and landing. A second demo flight in the second quarter of 2009 will test Dragon’s ability to autonomously rendezvous and dock with the station. Instead of actually performing the mission at the ISS, though, SpaceX will use a “virtual” version of the station. “Here, we’ll use the second stage of our Falcon 9 launch vehicle as a physical target, and map a virtual space station using that target,” he explained. The third and final demo flight, in the third quarter of 2009, would carry actual cargo to the station and return cargo from the station back to Earth.

That test program would cover what are known as capabilities A through C of the COTS program: carrying cargo to the station, destructive disposal of cargo from the station, and the return of cargo from the station back to Earth. It does not include perhaps the most interesting part of the program, known as Option D: ferrying crews to and from the station. The $278 million that NASA awarded SpaceX for the COTS demonstration program did not include Option D, but Hughes said that the company has already developed a test program for demonstrating that capability using Dragon. An unmanned high-altitude suborbital flight in 2009 would demonstrate the vehicle’s abort and recovery systems; that would be followed in 2010 by two manned flights to the ISS: a “light” flight carrying a three-person crew to provide maximum delta-v and life support margins, and then an operational mission with a full seven-person crew.

That schedule is dependent on NASA making a decision relatively soon about funding Option D: Hughes said that in order to meet those dates NASA would have to exercise the option by the end of 2007. Any additional NASA funding, Hughes said, would be accompanied by contributions by SpaceX itself, as it is already doing for the cargo version of Dragon. “SpaceX would also be willing to ‘put its own skin in the game’ with a significant financial contribution” to develop that manned capability, he said.

Kistler and the tale of the $10 payload

For the other company to win a COTS demonstration award, RpK, the victory marked the outcome of a dramatic—and, in many quarters, unexpected—turnaround for the former Kistler Aerospace, which had been all but given up for dead just a year ago. “Kistler rose from the ashes, quite literally, in February” when Rocketplane owner George French bought a majority stake in the company, said Will Trafton, executive vice president of RpK. “We had about four weeks to put together the response to the RFP [request for proposals] to NASA. We certainly appreciate having been selected.”

RpK’s COTS proposal was based, as expected, on the K-1 RLV that Kistler Aerospace had been trying to develop since the 1990s. “We spent $600 million in the late ’90s designing and building this vehicle,” Trafton said, “so a lot is done already.” Trafton’s charts indicated that the K-1 vehicle hardware is “75% complete”, a figure that Kistler Aerospace had been using since before it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2003. However, he noted that other components of the vehicle are not nearly as far along: the payload module is only 25% complete and the kerosene tank for the K-1’s upper stage, the Orbital Vehicle (OV), is 35% complete.

“Kistler rose from the ashes, quite literally, in February” when George French bought the company, Trafton said.

Many other vehicle components are already available, including the Russian-made NK-33 and NK-43 engines that power the first stage (the Launch Assist Platform, or LAP), and the OV, respectively. Aerojet has a stockpile of those engines in a Sacramento warehouse, and Trafton said it’s not really correct to call them Russian engines anymore. “We’re trying to get everybody to start calling them AJ-26’s,” he said, referring to the Aerojet designation for the NK-33 and -43. “They have been Americanized with many US parts. In fact, they can’t fly without Aerojet going in and replacing a lot of controllers and feed lines, et cetera, with US parts.” The current stockpile of engines would allow RpK to fly over 100 K-1 missions before needing to start domestic production of replacements, which is technically feasible since Aerojet owns the blueprints for the engines. “We would all like to see that day arrive.”

RpK is also sticking to Kistler’s original plans to perform K-1 flights out of Woomera, Australia. “The launch complex has been designed and is ready to be constructed,” he said, but added that “we have some work to do with the Australian government.” RpK will later add a US site; Trafton said the company was looking “very hard” at Cape Canaveral. Woomera is currently available for launches to polar and ISS inclinations, but Trafton said that “the Australian government has told us that, after three or four successful launches, we basically have unrestricted corridors out of Woomera: we can go in any direction, any azimuth.”

RpK has a similar demonstration flight schedule as SpaceX, with a risk reduction flight in late 2008 followed by two demonstration flights in the first half of 2009. Trafton didn’t provide many specifics about those flights, other than to say that only the last two flights would be funded by NASA. The initial risk reduction flight would be paid for exclusively by RpK—almost. He mentioned that he brought this up during a speech at the Small Payload Rideshare Conference in California earlier in the month, a meeting filled with developers of small satellites looking for any kind of ride to orbit. “I said, ‘If you have ten dollars, and you come to me with a payload, then I’m up ten bucks.’ So this professor from Stanford stands up, walks up to the podium, and hands me a ten dollar bill.”

“The downside, if there could be a downside, is that I’m going to fly this guy, fly this CubeSat, for ten bucks,” Trafton concluded. “The upside is that I was the only guy at the rideshare conference that got a contract.”

RpK is looking beyond COTS to other markets that the K-1—originally developed to serve a burgeoning commercial LEO communications satellite market that has since evaporated—could serve. One possible area is Operationally Responsive Space (ORS), the military’s current interest in small launch vehicles that could launch small satellites on short notice. A K-1 vehicle could be prepared for launch in as little as 48–72 hours if the payload is available, Trafton said. “That starts to take you into the window for ORS.”

RpK, like SpaceX, is also looking into supporting crewed flights to ISS, but also has no money yet from NASA to carry out Option D. “In the beginning it was 2012 to 2014 when NASA might have a budget line item for capability D,” Trafton said. “We have been told, as SpaceX has, that NASA anticipates moving that to the left, significantly to the left.” Trafton said RpK has already examined ways to convert the payload module into a crew module that could carry five people, and could be ready to demonstrate that capability as early as 2009 or 2010, if funding is available.

Trafton: “I said, ‘If you have ten dollars, and you come to me with a payload, then I’m up ten bucks.’ So this professor from Stanford stands up, walks up to the podium, and hands me a ten dollar bill.”

Funding in general has proven to be at least a minor complication for RpK. While the company had signed Orbital Sciences Corporation as a partner during the proposal process—with Orbital committing to investing $10 million into the project as well as providing engineering and management support—Orbital backed out in late September, reportedly because they were pushing for modifications to the K-1 that RpK found unacceptable. Several days after Orbital backed out RpK announced that Andrews Space, a much smaller company founded by a number of former Kistler employees, agreed to step in and make a similar investment into the project.

Trafton admitted, though, that the situation is more complicated than simply swapping out one company for another. “No, they’re not a one-for-one replacement,” he said of Andrews. Unspecified ongoing negotiations, he said, limited his ability to say more about the situation. He also said little about the financial situation, as RpK looks to raise from the private sector about double the $207 million NASA is providing. That money will be raised in three tranches, with the first one nearly completed. “We’re looking pretty good on that end of things.”

“So that’s where we are,” he concluded, summarizing the developments of the last several months. “We’re up and running, and very excited about what the future holds for us.”