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.
As 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…
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.