Musk Reaches for Mars; NASA Worries About Reaching Space Station

soyuz_seat_costs_2006-18
While Elon Musk was in Mexico last week wowing the world with his plan to send a million people to Mars, NASA officials north of the border in Houston were contemplating a more mundane problem: how to continue sending a handful of American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

That challenge, which NASA has faced since it retired the space shuttle in 2011, was supposed to have been solved by now through the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program. However, cuts in budget requests by Congress, problems at NASA, and technical challenges have prevented Musk’s company, SpaceX, and Boeing from fielding the crew vehicles they are developing for the space agency.

soyuz_seat_costs_table_2006-18As a result, the U.S. has remained dependent upon Russian Soyuz spacecraft, at a sharply increasing cost per seat. Over the past decade, the cost of Soyuz seats have risen from $21.8 million to $81.2 million. NASA has paid nearly $3.4 billion to fly astronauts on Russian spacecraft since 2006.

And now it looks like that dependence could last even longer.

Concerned that neither Boeing nor SpaceX will have their vehicles flying commercially by 2018, NASA officials are once again contemplating ordering more Soyuz seats from the Russians. Given the two to three years of lead time required for such an order, a decision needs to be made fairly soon.

If the space agency purchases six seats for 2019 at the most recent rate of $81.2 million, it would pay the Russians an additional $487.2 million. That’s assuming the price hasn’t gone up again.

Schedules Sliding to the Right

SpaceX says it will be able to carrying astronauts to the station on a commercial basis aboard Crew Dragon spacecraft in 2017. Boeing has slipped its schedule for the first commercial CST-100 Starliner flight into 2018.

Spaceflight Now’s launch schedule has the first Crew Dragon — an automated flight test to ISS — as taking place in July 2017. This represents a 16-month slip from the original schedule.

The automated flight would be followed months later by a crewed test to the space station. If all goes well, Crew Dragon would be certified to carry NASA astronauts, allowing commercial flights to begin.

Although SpaceX could conceivably begin flights next year, that prospect dimmed considerably last month. The NASA Inspector General (IG) released an audit on Sept. 1 that found it is unlikely that either Boeing or SpaceX will conduct commercial flights before the end of 2018.

That would be three years behind NASA’s original schedule. The report found that while previous delays were caused by cuts in program budget requests by Congress, current delays are a result of technical challenges faced by the two companies and bureaucratic delays at NASA.

And Then It Went Boom…

Credit: USLaunchReport.com
Credit: USLaunchReport.com

The NASA IG audit came out the same day that a SpaceX Falcon 9 caught fire and exploded on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral while being fueled for a pre-launch engine test. It was the second catastrophic failure of a Falcon 9 in 14 months.

With Falcon 9 grounded, there are likely to be further delays in SpaceX’s already backed up launch schedule. The company launched eight times this year prior to the failure, and it wanted to conduct nine or 10 more launches by the end of 2016.

SpaceX said last week that the accident resulted from a breach in the Falcon 9’s second stage helium system. The company is still trying to determine why the helium system breached.

Musk, who has called the investigation the most difficult one in SpaceX’s history, said last week the company had eliminated all the obvious possibilities, leaving less obvious ones.

SpaceX’s Problems, Densifed

During the IAAA Space Conference last month, SpaceX officials sought to reassure the industry that they are continuing to move ahead with its commercial crew effort despite the failure.

However, further delays appear inevitable with Falcon 9 grounded and SpaceX preoccupied with finding the cause of the failure.  It is unclear at this point what changes might be needed in the launch vehicle or ground support equipment.

One area of concern involves the use of densified, super cold propellants that would be loaded into the Falcon 9 after the crew has been placed aboard the Crew Dragon. In previous human spaceflight programs, crews have entered their spacecraft after fueling was complete for safety reasons.

NASA officials said they were not totally comfortable using densified fuels or loading the crew first. The fact that the Falcon 9 failed during fueling has increased those concerns.

Meanwhile, questions have been raised about SpaceX are devoting sufficient attention and resources to the commercial crew effort. One anonymous official who deals with commercial crew has said that while Boeing has people full-time its program, SpaceX team members are often multi-tasking on multiple projects at once.

A journalist asked Musk about whether SpaceX needed to refocus its efforts during a press conference that followed his Mars presentation on Tuesday.

Musk responded that the company’s effort on developing the Raptor engine and fuel tank for SpaceX’s Mars rocket was only using about 5 percent of the company’s resources. Expenditures totaled in the few tens of millions of dollars, he added.

Musk also complained — immediately after having given a much hyped, widely covered talk watched online by tens of thousands of people around the world — that the media pay 1,000 times more attention to failures at SpaceX than they do to those that other rocket companies.

Musk was not asked about nor did he comment on what resources SpaceX is devoting to its Red Dragon program, whose goal is to send a series of automated Dragon spacecraft to land on Mars beginning in 2018. Musk’s plan is to send a human crew to the planet as early as 2024.

SpaceX has not stated what it is spending on the first Red Dragon flight. However, a NASA official has estimated the cost to be about 10 times the $30 million in logistical support the space agency has agreed to provide for the mission. If the figure is correct, the amount would total around $300 million.

Launch windows for Mars flights comes around every 26 months. In 2018, the window spans April and May. That means it’s possible SpaceX could launch a Red Dragon to Mars before the company completes development of Crew Dragon and begins commercial flights to ISS.

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  • JamesG

    NASA’s problems are all of its own, or rather Congress’ making. And boil down to; “penny wise- pound foolish”. After the decision to wind down the STS program, Constellation was supposed to be the multipurpose system to the ISS runs and all the other fun stuff. But… that got cancelled because it got to expensive (and weak political support). So we flailed around a bit until we got the ultra-expensive Orion on SLS and a pair (after originally paying for three) of brand new manned spacecraft, none of which are funded properly to get them thru development and testing. Plus we have a hodge podge of launch vehicles and unmanned cargo spacecraft that NASA also paid the development and operating costs on. So if you want to point out a lack of focus here, you should start with NASA and Congressional management of its herd of cats programs.

    So of course Congress is going to have to buy more Soyuz seats, and of course the Russians are going to jack up the price. Because they can.

  • newpapyrus

    The primary reason for developing a private commercial crew capability was for private space companies to conduct private commercial missions to LEO. That’s because there’s simply not enough demand from NASA for crewed missions into space– especially by multiple launch companies. And NASA will continue to incorporate Russian crew launches in its missions even after commercial crew launch vehicles are fully operational.

    The primary focus of Commercial Crew companies should be on transporting private passengers (the super wealthy and space lotto winners) to private space habitats at LEO. There are at least 50,000 people currently in the world wealthy enough to afford such trips into space. Commercial Crew companies should be focusing on attracting some of these potential customers!

    Marcel

  • JamesG

    What private space habitats are you referring to?

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    What space lotto winners? Where can I get tickets?

  • Douglas Messier

    Commercial Crew Program is giving them that opportunity. NASA’s paying the vast bulk of the cost. Elon doesn’t seem interested in it anymore. He’s got his Mars plans. If Crew Dragon was going, it wouldn’t be much of a problem.

  • newpapyrus

    Space Commercialization and the Lunar Lottohttp://newpapyrusmagazine.blogspot.com/1999/01/space-commercialization-and-lunar-lotto.html

  • newpapyrus
  • pathfinder_01

    Ah he is spending time and resources getting commercial crew going. It just should NOT take 100% of any companies resources..

  • Douglas Messier

    Of course it shouldn’t. But, what does it say to the employees about priorities when he’s pushing Mars so heavily?

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    I believe EM stated about 5% of the workforce is focused on Mars. The balance on their other commitments which includes Commercial Crew. He’s stated also that the curent incident investigation is the primary focus at present but that also doesn’t involve all their resources. They’re still manufacturing hardware elements that have been excluded from said investigation.
    Methinks some exaggeration is in play here.
    Cheers

  • Aerospike

    Mars has been Elon Musk’s goal right from the start of SpaceX and he has missed no opportunities to say that. Everything else are just stepping stones to get there.

    We certainly can debate if that is the right approach and if his priorities are in correct order, but the “pushing Mars” thing is definitely not new and should not be surprising.

    In other words: I think that most employees of SpaceX have been aware about the Mars plans before they joined.

  • MarcVader

    There are more than 5000 of these employees. Many of them working on CC. As to what it says to them? That’s a rather silly rhetorical question. CCdev is vital to the development of crewed vehicles for Mars!

  • Kapitalist

    Only two (2) in a million human beings are professional astronomers (15,000 worldwide is a figure I’ve seen). So the number of space enthusiasts among the richest 50,000 better be 40 times higher than the number of astronomers, per actual customer. So for 100 customers you need 4,000 more space enthusiasts than professionals. Sure, one should maybe count space industry employees rather than astronomers (many of whom never look up and never want to go there), but in general people don’t care about space. Space was only interesting to people as long as no one knew anything about it, for religious and astrological purposes. Now that it has become a math homework, the common knowledge of which isn’t even needed for do-it-yourself navigation and calendars anymore, space has lost its popular allure.

  • JamesG

    The one sitting in a warehouse in Las Vegas doesn’t count. The others you can’t visit. Selling a derivative of a futures contract only works for con-men and Wall St.

  • Aerospike

    Yeah.
    People (aka the masses) are just as clueless about what is out there today, as they were in ancient times imho.
    Just ask anybody outside of the space enthusiasts anything about space… if you are lucky, you might have picked one that can tell you the names of the planets of our solar system in the correct order.

    But given our educational systems, it is no wonder. At least in my area (Austria, Europe) and my time in school (end of the 1980ies until 2001) space was not much more than a footnote. In the equivalent of high school, in one year of biology there were like 2? pages about the formation of the solar system (and that was only in one of 8 years of high school, in the other years there was nothing) and I think (but can’t remember for sure) physics provided little more than a bit about Kepler’s laws.

    I held a ~15 min talk about our solar system once and I think that covered more stuff than all of high school together.
    My fellow students were fascinated and had a lot of questions but you can’t expect that this fascination with space continues for everybody when they’ll never be taught anything about it again until they leave school.

  • Douglas Messier

    No. He said less than 5 percent working on ITS. Doesnt include Red Dragon or Falcon Heavy.

  • JamesG

    And it has no direct impact on their lives, even when it has indirect (GPS, Sat. TV, etc.). The billions spent on space science, even when it produces cool pretty pictures has less general public impact as the latest hollywood sci-fi action movie.

    That will not change until space becomes more meaningful in real life to more people. Either they have a realistic possibility of going (and working) off Earth, or working in an industry that has a tangible connection to space, or can buy/sell extraterrestrial goods.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Ok thanks Doug. Did say ‘about’ as opposed to exactly but never mind. I don’t know how much of his workforce is working on FH which isn’t Mars-specific and therefore shouldn’t be included anyway or Red Dragon. Anyone know?
    Cheers

  • mlc449

    With US-Russia relations back at Cold War levels it’s doubtful that NASA can continue relying on the Soyuz for its needs much longer. Space is one of the few areas left that the US and Russia continue to cooperate on but Putin could pull the plug on this at any moment, just like it did yesterday with the disposal of weapons grade plutonium, a key post-Cold War agreement that both countries committed to.

    The priority now needs to be on Commercial Crew, NOT SLS and Congress needs to step up with additional funding.

  • ReSpaceAge

    Seems Elon has been working on his ITS design longer than you might think. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a43ae26f57a08bb873f1ed200142bce148dd3a6ddec712d95692019e3a2f052c.jpg

  • Vladislaw

    You are being silly. Bigelow has invested over 200 million and built a factory. Con men don’t build factories, they rent a building to pull the con.

    Bigelow stated from day one. He will not put up a habitat until there is two domestic passenger services. It would be totally idiotic for him to launch a facility until he has a way to get to it.

    The one getting ready to launch DOES count. Just as every piece of hardware sitting on the deck waiting to be launched counts.

  • Vladislaw

    What is your proof that Elon is not interested anymore? Have you conducted personal interviews with him?

    You are being silly Douglas. What do you think .. Elon holes up in a cubical and sits and doodles about mars 16 hours a day?

  • I’m terribly sorry but this time both the content and prose of this article leave something to be desired, at least from me.

  • Douglas Messier

    I’m judging based on his actions and what I have heard about SpaceX’s staffing of its commercial crew effort. The optics of unveiling a Mars plan at a time when SpaceX is under criticism for not putting enough effort into crew are terrible.

    I do know that earlier this year when Tesla experienced difficulties, he made the dramatic gesture of
    setting up his desk at the end of the Tesla assembly line and spending
    the night there in a sleeping bag. It seems to have helped.

    > What do you think .. Elon holes up in a cubical and sits and doodles about mars 16 hours a day?

    That’s a silly argument. Did I say that? No. So don’t put words in my mouth.

  • JamesG

    “You are being silly. Bigelow has invested over 200 million and built a
    factory. Con men don’t build factories, they rent a building to pull the
    con.”

    Or builds a building and calls it a “factory”.

    But I don’t think Bigelow is disingenuous. The problem is the Catch 22, there’s no passenger service to LEO because there are no destinations, and there are no destinations because there are no ways to get to it. Someone has to take that first step, and NASA has kinda sorta done so with Commercial Crew. So we’ll see what happens.

    The context of my comment was that its not up there now contrary to Paparus Guy’s statement. Hardware sitting on the ground does not count for anything except for taxes.

  • JamesG

    Generation ships… sigh….

  • Richard Malcolm

    Ares and Orion were always going to be absurd means for servicing the space station. It would be like using a Caterpillar 797 to make a grocery store run – and the funding needed to use it for that would have swallowed up so much of the lunar exploration budget – which of course is why Griffin wanted the ISS to go away as soon as possible. But that was never politically likely, either.

  • Richard Malcolm

    I wonder how much difference extra funding at this point would make for timelines. But it’s at least worth exploring now with NASA and the CCtCAP contractors.

    Putin is in his own tough spot with ROSCOSMOS – U.S. payments are helping underwrite them in a major way, especially with the new wave of funding cuts by the Russian government. I expect Putin will be slow to use ISS access as a hammer over the U.S. for that reason.

  • Vladislaw

    My apologies if I got it wrong. I do agree Bigelow is not being disingenuous and I actually believe SpaceX is party to blame. I remember Elon saying before the cargo dragons first test flight that it would cost about 300 million to upgrade it to a crew version and that if government didn’t help fund it SpaceX would be doing it themselves it would just take longer. I think Bigelow banked on it happening a lot faster than it has actually taken.

  • Vladislaw

    Did you do a write up on what you have heard and by who on the staffing of Commercial crew? I may have missed the article…

  • Richard Malcolm

    It’s very arguably bad optics to push the Mars program while they’re still picking up pieces of the Falcon 9 at 39A, indeed. But I do think it’s hard to assess what’s actually happening internally from such PR exercises.

    That said, I do find that Eric Berger’s comments from sources that the Crew Dragon engineers are often multi-tasking on other assignments to be more directly concerning. But beyond that cryptic report, I don’t know how else to evaluate how SpaceX is managing Dragon development. Or for that matter, why Boeing is even farther behind schedule on Starliner – beyond the low funding levels through last year, of course.

  • Richard Malcolm

    Well, we have a rough date for Crew Capsule availability sometime in 2018 for both Boeing and SpaceX (if schedules do not slip). So until then, Bigelow knows he has no way to get anyone to a LEO station. Why launch it any sooner – especially with data still being collected from BEAM?

    But it’s a fair question what there has been in the way of arrangements on this. NASA’s ISS crew missions are going to take priority. How much spare capacity will each company have to deliver people to and from a private Bigelow station in, say, 2019?

  • JamesG

    Nothing is worse than a billionaire industrialist with ADHD…

  • JamesG

    But it would have been cheaper that what we got/will get in the end…

  • Douglas Messier
  • Richard Malcolm

    Well, Orion is still Orion; but Ares was already on track to cost more than SLS is, and not just because it involved developing TWO entirely separate launch vehicles.

    Neither will be as inexpensive to develop or operate as Starliner and Dragon put together, at any rate. Total Commercial Crew funding (including initial batch of missions comes to about $9.1 billion, and that’s for two entirely separate vehicles using two different launchers. Orion alone will come to $15.6 billion in development through 2021 (granted that it is a more capable vehicle in some ways, but the extra capabilities only come into play in BEO missions); SLS is going to come to over $20 billion.

  • Vladislaw

    My apologies. To be honest Douglas, I have been reading you faithfully for years. I always came away with a positive feeling about space and tourism. It seems of late though…. especially anything VIrgin Galatic, everything seems to have such a negative spin now. Maybe it is just me. I am not a starry eyed fan boy by any means, but I do have very positive thoughts on the future. At times I just do not leave your site with those feelings anymore but the opposite and have not hit your site daily as often as before.

    again, my apologies for missing that article.

  • ReSpaceAge

    I wonder if commercial crew has really made it go faster. I seems I recall the crew version of Dragon was a lot more like Cargo Dragon years back. Seems the government money made everything a lot more complex.
    All that “FREE Red Dragon Lander” money you know!!

    Dragon Fly

  • ReSpaceAge

    Feeling sick again!

    Opportunity cost

  • Hypx

    As discussed in previous threads, what do you think of the chance that NASA might abandon Dragon 2/Falcon 9 for commercial crew? At first, I’d thought they might figure something out by flying Dragon 2 on another rocket the same way Cygnus did. But reading about the extremely small team of dedicated engineers on it (said to be 2-3 dozen employees) and everyone else multi-tasked with other things, it doesn’t look at all like SpaceX is serious about this contract. It feels like it wouldn’t take much for NASA to get nervous regarding the situation and start looking at other options.

  • JamesG

    But if Constellation had been competently managed… I know, coulda, woulda, shoulda.

  • JamesG

    That is the $100 million question. Right now even if the HSF faerie waivered her magic wand and both CST-100 and Crew Dragon were fully up and certified, it would be literally YEARS before you could book a flight to your non-existant LEO destination or even the ISS if you had that much pull.

  • Richard Malcolm

    I think the problem was more the architecture itself than just how it was managed. VSE gave Griffin a mandate for a true Shuttle Derived HLV, a la Magnum or NLS. What he ended up with instead was something far more ambitious.

  • JamesG

    The problem was the same as SLS, one size did not fit all. You can’t or rather its really damned difficult (ie:expensive) to build a single vehicle that can do both medium and heavy lift with the same components, even if you don’t have politics and corporate interests sticking their opinions in. But that is why you pay management the big bucks.

  • James

    The question is what are they working on.

    If the Hardware is done and the rest is just programing and a couple other things it would make sense. Everyone else got transfered to getting the Falcons going and the Mars stuff.

  • JamesG

    Something that paid off more contractors and keep more NASA mid-management employed anyway…