The Year of the Four Spaceships: A Progress Report

The Expedition 63 crew welcomes Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station. (Credits: NASA / Bill Stafford)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Back in February, I went out on a limb and predicted that 2020 could be the Year of the Four Spaceships, with SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic reaching major milestones in human spaceflight. (See 2020: Four Spaceships & the End of America’s Cosmic Groundhog Day)

With nearly half the year over, I thought it would be a good time to review the companies’ progress toward those milestones.


GAO: NASA Performance on Major Projects Continues to Deteriorate

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its latest assessment of NASA’s major projects at the end of April. It found that NASA’s performance on its major projects continued to deteriorate on cost and schedule. (Full Report)

Below are key excerpts from the report that provide an overview of where NASA stands on its major projects. Although GAO did not analyze the Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon, the watchdog warned the Trump Administration’s decision to move the landing date up from 2028 to 2024 will put more pressure on the space agency.

“Looking ahead, NASA will continue to face significant cost and schedule risks as it undertakes complex efforts to return to the moon under an aggressive time frame,” the report stated.


NASA Networks Support 1st Commercial Orbital Launch of Astronauts From U.S.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched from Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley aboard, Saturday, May 30, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls & Joel Kowsky)

GREENBELT, Md. (NASA PR) — On May 30, a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft launched from the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the International Space Station as part of SpaceX’s second demonstration mission under the Commercial Crew Program — the first mission to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil to the station since the Space Shuttle Program.

The Crew Dragon ferried NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to join the Expedition 63  crew aboard the space station. NASA’s communications networks — overseen by NASA’s  Space Communications and Navigation  (SCaN) program office — supported this Commercial Crew Program milestone, just as they will support all Crew Dragon and Boeing Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner  missions.


Crew Dragon Flight with Astronauts Scheduled for May 27

An instrumented mannequin sit in the Crew Dragon spacecraft for the Demo-1 mission. (Credit: SpaceX)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (NASA PR) — A new era of human spaceflight is set to begin as American astronauts once again launch on an American rocket from American soil to the  International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will fly on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, lifting off on a Falcon 9 rocket at 4:32 p.m. EDT May 27, from Launch Complex 39A in Florida, for an extended stay at the space station for the Demo-2 mission. The specific duration of the mission is to be determined.


NASA Statement on SpaceX Crew Dragon Parachute Test Mishap

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — To date, SpaceX has completed 24 tests of its upgraded Mark 3 parachute design they are working to certify for use on the Crew Dragon spacecraft that will fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. The system was used during the SpaceX in-flight abort test in January.

On March 24, SpaceX lost a spacecraft-like device used to test the Crew Dragon Mark 3 parachute design. The test requires a helicopter to lift the device suspended underneath it to reach the needed test parameters. However, the pilot proactively dropped the device in an abundance of caution to protect the test crew as the test device became unstable underneath the helicopter. At the time of the release, the testing device was not armed, and a test of the parachute design was not performed.

Although losing a test device is never a desired outcome, NASA and SpaceX always will prioritize the safety of our teams over hardware. We are looking at the parachute testing plan now and all the data we already have to determine the next steps ahead of flying the upcoming Demo-2 flight test in the mid-to-late May timeframe.

GAO: Accelerating Commercial Crew Schedule Poses Risks

Credit: NASA

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s plan to move up the start of operational crew missions to the International Space Station (ISS) by Boeing and SpaceX could pose serious safety risks, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).


Boeing Takes $410 Million Charge in Case of Additional Starliner Flight

Starliner OFT-1 capsule after landing at White Sands Missile Range. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Boeing has taken a $410 million charge against earnings in case NASA requires that it conduct an additional flight test of its Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), the company during an earnings call on Wednesday.

In December, a Starliner flight test without a crew went awry after a software problem prevented the vehicle from docking with the station. The spacecraft landed safely in New Mexico after a two-day orbital flight.

NASA needs to decide whether they will require Boeing to fly a second flight without a crew to ISS before launching astronauts aboard the vehicle on a flight test. A source who requested anonymity told Parabolic Arc the decision could come in mid-February.

Boeing and NASA are continuing to investigate the root cause of the anomaly, officials said. A preliminary report is expected on Saturday.

Boeing is developing Starliner to transport crews to the station under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

A Closer Look at NASA’s Proposed Human Exploration Plan

Credit: NASA

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA would launch the first element of a human-tended Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway in 2022 under a proposed exploration plan that would make use of commercial and international partnerships.

A power and propulsion module would be followed soon afterward by habitation, airlock, and logistics modules. The gateway would serve as a base for astronauts to explore the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 lifted off from the surface in 1972.


Could Dream Chaser Service Hubble Space Telescope?

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s space vehicle suspends in a hangar at NASA’s Armstrong to undergo testing. (Credit: NASA/Ken Ulbrich)

The Wall Street Journal reports that Sierra Nevada Corporation has put forth a proposal to send a crewed Dream Chaser to service the aging Hubble Space Telescope.

The discussions are still preliminary, no specific plans have been drafted and senior White House aides or administration advisers currently overseeing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration could veto the concept. Decisions about any potentially major NASA initiative await the appointment of a new agency head, according to industry and government officials.

But deliberations about sending a spacecraft to link up with NASA’s pioneering orbiting telescope—comparable to five earlier missions by the now-retired space shuttle fleet stretching back to 1993—illustrate the Trump team’s guiding principles when it comes to space investments. Industry and transition officials agree the focus is on seeking dramatic but relatively inexpensive space projects that can be readily understood by average Americans.

The Hubble repair proposal also has garnered administration officials’ attention because it appears to meet still other important White House criteria, according to these people. The goal is to put a lid on federal expenditures for space by fostering public-private partnerships, while devising projects that can be completed within the president’s current four-year term….

Sierra Nevada is betting that the Trump administration’s enhanced interest in commercial space projects—including transition memos extolling the potential benefits of manned missions orbiting the moon—could revive Hubble’s rejuvenation bid. The company twice presented its proposal to transition officials, according to one person familiar with the details.

Sierra Nevada is currently developing a cargo variant of Dream Chaser to resupply the International Space Station. That vehicle is not scheduled to begin deliveries to the space station until 2019.

It’s not clear how much work, funding or additional testing would be required to upgrade the cargo ship for crew use. Nor is it clear whether a mission to Hubble could be completed in time for Trump’s re-election campaign in 2020.

The company did make substantial progress toward a crew vehicle during NASA’s Commercial Crew Program before Dream Chaser was dropped from the program in 2014.

The two selected commercial crew companies, Boeing and SpaceX, have run into significant technical problems during the final phase of commercial crew development and testing. Both companies are running significantly behind schedule.



KSC Continues Transformation to Multi-User Spaceport

Orion Exploration Flight Test launch. (Credit: NASA)
Orion Exploration Flight Test launch. (Credit: NASA)

By Frank Ochoa-Gonzales
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

The year 2014 proved to be of the banner variety for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Kennedy’s diverse new identity on full display as NASA prepares America for its next journey into deep space.

In the quest to transform Kennedy in to the world’s eminent multi-user spaceport, employees have helped prepare, launch and recover Orion; establish, ready and process research and cargo bound for the International Space Station and partner with Boeing and SpaceX to develop human-rated spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS by 2017.


Space Frontier Calls for Opposition to Senate Commercial Crew Provisions

sff_logoSilicon Valley, CA (SFF PR) — The Space Frontier Foundation calls upon Americans to stop efforts by US Senator Richard Shelby (R, AL) to critically damage the emerging commercial spaceflight industry. The Senate FY 15 budget proposals calls for excessive and costly bureaucratic oversight that would not only increase costs for private launch companies exponentially, but delay the Commercial Crew Program by months, if not years.

“There is a reason the NASA COTS program worked so quickly and efficiently, and that reason was not due to paperwork and hard-nosed oversight,”said Foundation President James Pura. “Taxpayers could save billions of dollars by letting NASA fly lean, commercial U.S. rockets, and if that means loosening up traditional oversight practices, so be it. Lean, milestone-based payment systems are the way of the future, and let’s enable that process, instead of hindering it.”


Sierra Nevada Plans Additional Dream Chaser Flight Tests in Fall

Dream Chaser on approach after a successful free flight. (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Sierra Nevada Corporation will conduct additional drop tests of its Dream Chaser space shuttle at Edwards Air Force Base in the fall, Co-program Director John Curry said during the recent Space Tech Expo in Long Beach, Calif.

The approach and landing tests will be conducted using an upgraded engineering test vehicle that glided to a landing at Edwards last October.  The upgrades will include the avionics, software, and guidance, navigation and control systems designed for use on the orbital Dream Chaser spacecraft, Curry said.


An Overview of Blue Origin’s Commercial Crew Milestones

Blue Origin’s pusher escape system rockets the New Shepard crew capsule away from the launch pad. (Credit: Blue Origin)
Blue Origin’s pusher escape system rockets the New Shepard crew capsule away from the launch pad. (Credit: Blue Origin)

As one of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program partners, Blue Origin doesn’t get as much attention as Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX. That’s partly by design; the secretive company tries to fly under the radar as much as possible.

The other reason is that while Blue Origin received $25.38 million in funding for its orbital vehicle during the first two phases of Commercial Crew, it was not selected for the third round. The company has been working with NASA on an unfunded Space Act Agreement under which the space agency is providing support but not any funding.

To date, Blue Origin has completed 19 of 20 milestones under the three agreements with NASA. There has been significant progress on the pressure vessel, engine and escape system. The table below shows the company’s milestones under the agreements.

Blue Origin Space Act Agreements Milestones
Award Period: 2010 – 2014
Milestones: 20
Milestones Completed: 19
Milestones Remaining: 1
Total Award: $25.38 million

A1Project Kickoff Meeting. A meeting to brief NASA personnel on the pusher escape system maturation plan.March 2010Complete$835,000
A21-DOF TVC Plan. Conduct test firing of full-scale demonstration SRM integrated with TVC system on 1-degree of freedom trust measurement stand.July 2010Complete$835,000
A36-DOF TVC Plan. Conduct test firing of full-scale demonstration SRM integrated with TVC system on 6-degree of freedom trust measurement stand.October 2010Complete$835,000
A4Rocket Sled Test. Conduct non-separating test of full CC OML and mass simulator on rocket sled track.March 2011Complete$0
B1Composite Pressure Vessel Maturation Kickoff Meeting.
A meeting to brief NASA personnel on the implementation plan.
March 2010Complete$290,000
B2Test Article Composite Parts Received. Receive all parts necessary to complete assembly of one composite pressure vessel, closing supplier risk.May 2010Complete$290,000
B3Test Article Assembly Complete. Completion of the test article.August 2010Complete$290,000
1.1Space Vehicle Kickoff Meeting. A meeting at Blue Origin headquarters in Kent, WA to brief NASA personnel on the project implementation plan.May 2011Complete$905,000
1.2Space Vehicle Mission Concept Review. A review of the Space Vehicle Mission Concept. September 2011Complete$900,000
1.3Space Vehicle Systems Requirements Review. A review of systems requirements for the Space Vehicle. May 2012Complete$900,000
2.1Pusher Escape Kickoff Meeting. A meeting to brief NASA personnel on the pusher escape implementation plan.May 2011Complete$2,000,000
2.2Pusher Escape Vehicle #1 Shipment. Assembly of the first Pusher Escape Flight Test Vehicle is complete, except for installation of the pusher escape subsystem and separation mechanisms. Shipment to test range.December 2011Complete$2,000,000
2.3Pusher Escape Ground Firing.  Conduct an intial ground test of the pusher escape rocket motor and thrust vector control system to be used during the flight test campaign. January 2012Complete$3,000,000
2.6Escape Pad Escape Test. Conduct a test of one of the fight test vehicles simulating an escape from a booster on the launch pad.April 2012Complete$1,900,000
3.1Engine Kickoff Meeting. Meeting to brief NASA personnel on engine risk reduction implementation plan.May 2011Complete$3,400,000
3.2Engine TCA and Test Plan Review. Meeting to review test article interface data, Interface Control Diagram (ICD) and test plan.September 2011Complete$4,000,000
3.4Engine TCA Test. Conduct pressure-fed test of the full-scale thrust chamber assembly (TCA).May 2012Complete$3,000,000
3.6BE-3 Engine Test. Conduct a test firing of the pump-fed engine simulating a sub-scale booster suborbital mission duty cycle (MDC).September 2013Complete$0
3.7Subscale Prop Tank Assembly Review. Conduct a review of the design, manufacture and assembly of a subscale booster propellant tank. December 2013Complete$0
1.4Space Vehicle Subsystem Interim Design Review. Review space vehicle subsystem design progress with emphasis on power and actuation systems, in-space propulsion, multiplex avionics, flight mechanics and GN&C.March 2014Pending$0
 TOTAL: $25,380,000

Nield: Moratorium on Regulations Should End in 2015

George Nield

Looks like the honeymoon between the FAA and the nascent commercial space industry is coming to an end. Or at least the moratorium on government regulation.

George Nield, who heads up the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation, said earlier this week in Washington that he is against extending the “learning period” for commercial human spaceflight when it expires in 2015.

During that period, the FAA is generally restrained from rule making to allow the commercial spaceflight industry to experiment with different designs and systems for getting into space. However, the FAA can act if there is an accident or a close call.


NASA’s Commercial Crew Effort Gets New Deputy Program Manager

Brent Jett
Brent Jett

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) management team is getting a new deputy manager.

Kathy Lueders, who manages NASA’s International Space Station Program Transportation Integration Office, will take over the role next month. She will replace Brent Jett, who has left the agency after 21 years and four space shuttle flights.

“As deputy program manager, Lueders will oversee the facilitation of commercial spacecraft and launch vehicle development and certification efforts, enabling the safe transportation of NASA astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station around the middle of the decade,” the space agency said in notice on its website.