NASA Announces Next Steps in Effort to Launch Americans from U.S. Soil

NASA Friday announced new agreements with three American commercial companies to design and develop the next generation of U.S. human spaceflight capabilities, enabling a launch of astronauts from U.S. soil in the next five years. Advances made by these companies under newly signed Space Act Agreements through the agency’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative are intended to ultimately lead to the availability of commercial human spaceflight services for government and commercial customers.‬

CCiCap partners are:
— Sierra Nevada Corporation, Louisville, Colo., $212.5 million
— Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Hawthorne, Calif., $440 million
— The Boeing Company, Houston, $460 million

“Today, we are announcing another critical step toward launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on space systems built by American companies,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We have selected three companies that will help keep us on track to end the outsourcing of human spaceflight and create high-paying jobs in Florida and elsewhere across the country.”

CCiCap is an initiative of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and an administration priority. The objective of the CCP is to facilitate the development of a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station and low Earth orbit. After the capability is matured and expected to be available to the government and other customers, NASA could contract to purchase commercial services to meet its station crew transportation needs.

The new CCiCAP agreements follow two previous initiatives by NASA to spur the development of transportation subsystems, and represent the next phase of U.S. commercial human space transportation, in which industry partners develop crew transportation capabilities as fully integrated systems. Between now and May 31, 2014, NASA’s partners will perform tests and mature integrated designs. This would then set the stage for a future activity that will launch crewed orbital demonstration missions to low Earth orbit by the middle of the decade.

“For 50 years American industry has helped NASA push boundaries, enabling us to live, work and learn in the unique environment of microgravity and low Earth orbit,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The benefits to humanity from these endeavors are incalculable. We’re counting on the creativity of industry to provide the next generation of transportation to low Earth orbit and expand human presence, making space accessible and open for business.”

While NASA works with U.S. industry partners to develop commercial spaceflight capabilities to low Earth orbit, the agency also is developing the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and the Space Launch System (SLS), a crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket to provide an entirely new capability for human exploration. Designed to be flexible for launching spacecraft for crew and cargo missions, SLS and Orion MPCV will expand human presence beyond low Earth orbit and enable new missions of exploration across the solar system.

For more information about NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, visit: www.nasa.gov/commercialcrew

Intelsat Signs First Commercial Falcon Heavy Launch Agreement

Intelsat, the world’s leading provider of satellite services, has announced the first commercial contract for the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

“SpaceX is very proud to have the confidence of Intelsat, a leader in the satellite communication services industry,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer.” The Falcon Heavy has more than twice the power of the next largest rocket in the world. With this new vehicle, SpaceX launch systems now cover the entire spectrum of the launch needs for commercial, civil and national security customers.”

“Timely access to space is an essential element of our commercial supply chain,” said Thierry Guillemin, Intelsat CTO. “As a global leader in the satellite sector, our support of successful new entrants to the commercial launch industry reduces risk in our business model. Intelsat has exacting technical standards and requirements for proven flight heritage for our satellite launches. We will work closely with SpaceX as the Falcon Heavy completes rigorous flight tests prior to our future launch requirements.”

This is the first commercial contract for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. Under the agreement, an Intelsat satellite will be launched into geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO).

Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket in the world and historically is second only to the Apollo-era Saturn V Moon rocket. Capable of lifting 53 metric tons (117,000 pounds) to low Earth orbit and over 12 metric tons (26,000 pounds) to GTO, Falcon Heavy will provide more than twice the performance to low Earth orbit of any other launch vehicle. This will allow SpaceX to launch the largest satellites ever flown and will enable new missions. Building on the flight-proven architecture of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, Falcon Heavy is designed for reliability. The vehicle is designed to meet both NASA human rating standards as well as the stringent U.S. Air Force requirements for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, making it available for commercial, civil and military customers.

See also:

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy Booster: Why Is It Important?

SpaceX Falcon Heavy Overview

Moon Mines: Visionary or Senseless?

Editorial by Al Globus, December 2011

Do lunar mines make sense? The answer depends on what you want to do in space. If what you want is something close to what we have now: a booming commercial communication satellite business and government programs for science and exploration, then no. Lunar mines built entirely with tax dollars are expensive and unnecessary. On the other hand, if you see further than a few years ahead, if you see civilization, humanity, and Life itself expanding into space, if you see large scale industrialization, commercialization and settlement of space, then lunar mines are of enormous importance. The interesting thing is, the second vision will probably cost the taxpayer a lot less and deliver much greater value to the people of Earth.

First, let us consider what lunar mines can supply a growing civilization in space:

1) Shielding mass. Our atmosphere protects us from the intense radiation in space. For those who seek to spend long periods in space, particularly beyond Earth’s protective magnetic field, radiation shielding is a must. To mimic the atmosphere, roughly 10 tons/square-meter is necessary. The Moon is ideally situated to supply these bulk materials.

2) Rocket propellant. Today’s rockets are propelled by chemical reactions. The highest performance propellant is hydrogen and oxygen, which combine to produce water and the energy and thrust necessary to travel in space. Most of the weight, roughly 90%, of this propellant is oxygen. The Moon has very large quantities of oxygen tied up in surface materials.

3) Water. A great deal of money is spent today bringing water to the International Space Station (ISS). The same oxygen that supplies most of the mass for rocket propellant can be used to make water. There are also large quantities of water in the craters at the lunar poles where the Sun never shines.

4) Metals. Lunar materials returned by the Apollo astronauts contain large quantities of titanium, aluminum, iron and other metals. These metals can supply materials for large space structures, including habitats.

5) Silicon. Silicon and metals from the Moon could be used to build the space segment of Space Solar Power (SSP) systems. These satellites would gather energy in space and transmit it wirelessly to the ground. If successfully developed, SSP could supply massive quantities of clean energy to Earth for literally billions of years. A recent paper published in the NSS Space Settlement Journal [A Contemporary Analysis of the O’Neill – Glaser Model for Space-based Solar Power and Habitat Construction. Peter A. Curreri and Michael K. Detweiler. December 2011.] suggests that using lunar materials for the SSP satellites requires more up-front capital than ground launch but begins generating profits much sooner.

6) He-3. Over billions of years the solar wind has implanted He-3, an isotope that is particularly well suited to fusion power, into lunar surface materials. This could be mined, brought to Earth, and used in future fusion power plants.

Thus, a vigorous lunar mining system could be part of a system to deliver energy to Earth, build large structures in space, and even provide radiation protection, water and oxygen to those who want to spend significant time in orbit. Developing lunar mines will be an enormous effort and would cost huge amounts of taxpayer money if it were done the same way Apollo, the Space Shuttle, and the ISS were developed. Fortunately, there is another way.

In the 1960s the U.S. government provided modest subsidies to start up the communication satellite business. Today, communication satellites are a $250 billion/year global business producing yearly tax revenue far greater than the subsidies.

The U.S. government is currently providing subsidies to help develop private, commercial launch vehicles. The cargo versions are almost complete. Two launchers, one of which has flown, were developed at a small fraction of the usual cost for government launcher programs. The human launch versions are being developed by the commercial crew program, which was budgeted for $6 billion and scheduled to develop two or three vehicles that could deliver astronauts to the ISS by 2015. [The budget for the first year was cut from $850 million to $406 million. This is expected to delay the first flight by a year or two.] By contrast, the all-government Space Launch System (SLS) is not scheduled to fly astronauts until 2021 and is estimated cost $40 billion to develop. Although the SLS is much larger, variants of the commercial vehicles may approach or even exceed SLS performance sooner and at much less cost. [The first SLS version is expected to place up to 70 tons into Low Earth Orbit (LEO); a later version may lift up to 130 tons. The Falcon Heavy, due to launch in late 2012, is expected to place up to 50 tons in LEO. SpaceX has also proposed a larger version of the Falcon that could lift 150 tons to LEO; it is projected to take five years to develop at a total cost of $2.5 billion.]

Thus, the evidence suggests that reorienting our space program to support commercialization and industrialization of space, as opposed to 100% government missions, may produce far greater results at much less cost. Lunar mining could be a major component of such space industrialization. There is already at least one commercial company that intends to mine the Moon. Perhaps we should support it.

Lockheed Martin Reusable Booster System

Lockheed Reusable Booster System
Lockheed Martin Reusable Booster System

Lockheed Martin has been selected by the U.S. Air Force for a contract award to support the Reusable Booster System (RBS) Flight and Ground Experiments program. The value of the first task order is $2 million, with a contract ordering value of up to $250 million over the five-year indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract period. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center are developing the RBS as the next generation launch vehicle that will significantly improve the affordability, operability, and responsiveness of future spacelift capabilities over current expendable launchers.

Initial RBS Flight and Ground Experiments task orders will provide for an RBS flight demonstration vehicle called RBS Pathfinder scheduled to launch in 2015. The RBS Pathfinder is an innovative reusable, winged, rocket-powered flight test vehicle that will demonstrate the Reusable Booster Systems’ “rocketback” maneuver capabilities and validate the system requirements that will drive refinements in the design of the operational RBS.

For the RBS Pathfinder program, Lockheed Martin has also entered into an agreement with the New Mexico Spaceport Authority to conduct flight test operations from Spaceport America, the nation’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, located in southern New Mexico.

The vehicle would be launched vertically and landed horizontally. Further details, such as booster lift capability, are unavailable.

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy Booster: Why Is It Important?

by John K. Strickland, Jr.

The announcement of the Falcon Heavy in early April, 2011 was a potential game-changer in the space launch industry. The Falcon Heavy is slated to launch twice the payload of the Shuttle at about one-fifteenth the cost of a Shuttle launch — an approximate 95% reduction in launch costs compared with the Shuttle!

“How can Musk do that?”

Many months after the Falcon Heavy announcement there is still confusion about its significance, and in some quarters outright disbelief remains regarding the launch prices actually posted on the SpaceX website for the Falcon Heavy. No other company has posted fixed launch prices on the Internet — only SpaceX. The actual taxpayer cost of US government launches can only be guessed by calculating from the cost-plus contract costs, which are usually for multiple launches from the same customer. If SpaceX does multiple launches, the posted price would be reduced depending on the number of launches. Almost any commodity’s price decreases if production rates increase. Rockets are no different.

What amazes people is that SpaceX has broken the long-sought 1,000 dollars a pound to orbit price barrier with a rocket which is still expendable. “How can he (SpaceX CEO Elon Musk) possibly do this?” they ask. The Chinese have said flatly that there is no way they can compete with such a low price. It is important to remember that this was not done in a single step. The Falcon 9 already has a large price advantage over other boosters, even though it does not have the payload capacity of some of the largest ones. The “Heavy” will even this score and then some. At last count, SpaceX had a launch manifest of over 40 payloads, far exceeding any current government contracts, with more being added every month. These are divided between the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy.

The Falcon Heavy is similar in conformation to the Delta 4 Heavy, which is the only rocket currently in service that is fair to compare to the Falcon Heavy. The “Heavy” will consist of three Falcon 9 stages strapped together (two side stages and a core stage which has a small upper stage and payload with fairing). The Falcon stages are stretched and the nine Merlin engines on each will be upgraded to have more thrust than the current engines. With a total liftoff mass of 1400 metric tons, it will put 53 metric tons into a standard 200 km Earth orbit at 28 degrees. (The 200 km orbit is a standard orbit to start from, for example, for injection into a geosynchronous transfer orbit — payloads are not left in this 200 km orbit.) Each of the “Heavy’s” three stages are about 12 feet in diameter, so based on data from the Ares I, the payload fairing could be up to 18 feet in diameter. The currently proposed shroud diameter is 17 feet. The total thrust at liftoff will be 3.8 million pounds or about 1700 tons, or 50% of the Saturn V’s thrust. This will make it the world’s largest and most powerful operational rocket once it has flown. The first flight is anticipated in 2013 from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California.

A 10-fold reduction in cost per pound to orbit

To fairly compare the two rocket performances, you really have to look at the numbers. Although the Falcon Heavy looks similar to a Delta 4 Heavy, its performance is much higher and, simultaneously, its cost per launch is much lower. It can put 53 metric tons (117,000 lbs) in orbit compared to the Delta 4 Heavy’s 23 metric tons (or 50,600 lbs), a 230% improvement. At the same time, it only costs about $100 million per launch, while the Delta 4 Heavy launches cost $435 million each (calculated from an Air Force contract of $1.74 billion for 4 launches).

Comparing the payload costs to orbit is useful here. The Delta 4 Heavy can put up 23 metric tons at about $19 million/ton or $8600 per pound). If it could put up 53 metric tons at the same price per ton, then that payload launch would cost almost exactly 1 billion dollars. Since the Falcon Heavy’s posted price per launch centers on 100 million dollars (and the corresponding payload price is about $850 per pound or $1.9 million per ton), it is easy to see that the future (< 2 years) price of a commercial Falcon Heavy launch per unit weight is almost exactly one-tenth of the current Delta 4 Heavy price.

A different calculation method yields the same result. If we use the same average posted price value of $100 million, the Falcon Heavy actually can be launched for about one-fourth the cost of a Delta IV Heavy (4.35 times cheaper per launch), yet it carries 2.31 times as much payload! This means the current cost per pound to LEO for the Delta IV Heavy is 4.35 times 2.31 = 10.05 or almost exactly 10 times more expensive (by multiplying the two ratios together).

How SpaceX does it

When people see this cost comparison, they ask all over again “How can he (Musk) do that?” How can the Falcon outperform the Delta by such a wide margin? The three main reasons seem to be (1) low manufacturing cost (2) low operational cost (time efficient operations design and low man-hours needed per launch) and (3) high efficiency performance in flight. The first two have already been demonstrated by the Falcon 9, and they continue to be improved, such as a recently announced two-thirds reduction of fuel loading time. The SpaceX paradigm is one of continuous improvement.

The first reason (low manufacturing cost) is exercised again in the “Heavy” by using three nearly identical rocket stages (instead of two solids and a core stage), which means more production of the same units, thus reducing their unit cost. The SpaceX plant in Hawthorne, California, is building towards the capability of producing a Falcon 9 first stage or Falcon Heavy side booster every week and an upper stage every two weeks. Within five years, SpaceX expects to be producing more large rocket engines per year (several hundred) than all other rocket companies on the planet combined. Engine production costs will thus decline still more. (Dragon production, depending on demand, is planned for a rate of one every six to eight weeks.)

The third reason (high efficiency in flight) is partly achieved by the standard methods of making the engines fuel efficient, with high thrust and low mass, and making the overall structural mass of each stage as low as possible. Musk has apparently done this better than anyone else. For example, the two side boosters have a fully fueled to empty mass ratio of 30. Additional flight efficiency is achieved by propellant cross-feeding (see below).

The Falcon rockets also use a short upper stage which consists of a single Merlin engine to place the payload into orbit. Musk has been talking about creating a hydrogen-oxygen upper stage, which could boost the total Falcon Heavy payload close to the minimum for a “true” heavy lift vehicle, or about 70 tons. This engine could enter service before 2015.

Propellant cross-feeding

Part of the Falcon Heavy flight efficiency is achieved by a method that has been known for decades, but no one else has been willing to attempt to implement it. This method is called propellant cross-feeding. All three Falcon boosters use full thrust at takeoff to lift the massive rocket. During flight, the outer two stages pump part of their propellant into the center stage. They thus run out of propellant faster than you would expect, but the result is that the center (core) stage has almost a full load of propellant at separation where it is already at altitude and at speed. Unfortunately, very little information has been released on the cross-feeding system to be used by the Falcon Heavy. It would only be used for payloads exceeding 50 metric tons.

The cross-feeding scheme used by Space X apparently does not pump fuel into the tanks of the core stage. Instead, the three core-stage engines next to each side booster are fed directly from the side booster’s tanks. This is very similar to how the shuttle’s external tank feeds the shuttle main engines (SMEs). In the case of the Falcon Heavy, of course, the two side booster’s tanks are feeding propellant to 12 engines instead of 9, so they run out of propellant faster. At some point after liftoff, of course, you do not need the full thrust of all 27 engines to maintain acceleration, as much of the mass (propellant) has already been used. The core stage engines will then apparently be throttled down while the side stages continue to burn at full thrust. Presumably, only the center three engines in the core stage are using propellant from the core stages tanks. Thus, when the side stages separate, most of the core stage’s propellant is still there, and then all the core stage engines can burn at full thrust. Assuming that the core stage is going several thousand miles an hour at separation and is perhaps 30 miles high or more, it is as if an entire stretched Falcon 9 rocket starts its liftoff at separation. Separation of fuel lines like this occurred every time the external tank separated from the space shuttle and when the old original Atlas shed its two side booster engines.

What can we do with it?

The Falcon Heavy, when it enters service, creates a new payload weight class. This capability can be exploited in multiple ways for existing payloads, such as launching more than one communications satellite in a single payload. The large payload fairing gives payload designers a lot of room for their payloads, which do not need to be as compact, and can thus be wider and more than twice as heavy as a shuttle payload.

The Falcon Heavy also opens up a window to much larger, heavier payloads. Much concern was expressed after the last shuttle launch about the loss of the shuttle’s lift capacity. The Falcon Heavy will be able to place more than two shuttle payloads in orbit in one launch at about 1/15 of the price of a single shuttle launch. The only thing missing is the ability to move items placed in orbit to a specific place where you want them, such as the space station. The Dragon capsule (and the other smaller delivery vehicles) will cover that for smaller supplies. For larger items such as new habitats or instruments, just two large payloads, a Low Earth Orbit space tug and a propellant depot, would solve the problem. This would allow much larger space station modules to be launched and thus allow new additions to the station. The Large Centrifuge Facility is the most critical item that was deleted during the multi-decades of budget-cutting that affected the station. It is still a vitally needed module to allow studies of mammals in low gravity fields to prove that we can colonize Mars. Also, additional crew habitat and laboratory modules were originally planned and then cancelled.

The only shuttle capability that the Falcon Heavy (and its payloads) would not provide is the ability to return large objects from orbit, but this has been rarely required. Considering that the cost of shuttle launches has recently been pegged at $1.5 billion apiece, (about $75 million per ton of payload), in most cases it would be far cheaper to build a new payload than to bring it back in a shuttle.

There are many other large payloads that a Falcon Heavy could launch that do not involve the space station. With a 53 to 70 ton payload, a very large optical space telescope could be orbited to replace Hubble. Discussions are also underway for a potentially low-price-shattering Mars mission which would use a Dragon capsule to land deep drilling and other robotic equipment. The mission would presumably use a higher energy (hydrogen/oxygen) engine along with an enlarged upper stage to boost the Dragon to escape velocity toward Mars with the robotic drilling equipment inside. Since the Dragon plus its payload would be over 10 times heavier than any previously landed payload, it would have to use newer methods of decelerating in the atmosphere before landing on Mars. A modified Dragon capsule could also potentially be the basis of a much cheaper Mars sample return mission.

Fifty tons to orbit has been an assumed minimum unit mass for practical construction of space solar power. Even with the Falcon Heavy to launch the equipment, space solar cannot yet compete with coal or nuclear power, but even now, it could compete with ground solar or wind power, especially if intended for base load supply. Five Falcon Heavy launches could place 250 tons of solar panels in Earth orbit. An additional launch could orbit a solar powered ion or plasma tug, which could move the equipment to Geosynchronous Earth Orbit, avoiding the huge penalty of using liquid fuel to reach the higher orbit. Alternately, a single “Heavy” launch could place a single prototype 50-ton powersat in orbit to be used as an emergency power supply. This could be enough to supply about 10 megawatts to disaster sites over an entire continent via laser beam.

For human missions beyond LEO, the Falcon Heavy could launch a long duration Dragon capsule (about 10 metric tons) attached to a 42 ton crew habitat, or an Orion (21 metric tons) attached to a 32 ton habitat (these numbers do not include propellant to reach escape trajectory, which could be obtained from a propellant depot). Either configuration would be suitable for an asteroid mission.

Economic impact

Decades ago, the US lost most of the world’s market share of commercial satellite launches to Europe and Russia, along with a large number of jobs. The existing large US companies launch almost exclusively for the US government. This situation is now starting to change, with the realization that much lower launch costs are possible with high reliability. Both the commercial communications satellite makers and the government are now taking a close look at the upstart company, realizing that soon they will be able to launch 10 tons for the price of one. This will affect the US balance of payments, the US job market, and the level of confidence in our own ability to build commercial rocket launchers. It may encourage the existing large rocket companies to innovate and reduce launch costs for their own vehicles. The new entrepreneurial jobs may soak up some the laid-off NASA personnel and contractors. Needing fewer personnel to build and launch rockets will open job opportunities in spacecraft construction and other areas. A reduction of expenditures for space transportation to orbit will eventually allow more expenditures on space transportation in and beyond orbit.

What’s next

Elon Musk has indicated that he is not interested in building re-usable winged vehicles, but that he is interested in recovering his boosters for re-use, which he admits is a really tough challenge. The primary current problem being faced is structural breakup of the first stage due to dynamic pressure during entry. The side boosters of the Falcon Heavy would be good prospects for recovery attempts as they would have relatively lower velocity at stage separation. It may be possible to prevent damage during entry by using attitude control to keep the stages aligned with the entry flight path, stiffening the structure of the rocket bodies, and protecting the engine compartments. Recovering the second stage of the Falcon 9 would require full re-entry protection, but this stage is easier to stabilize during entry. The core stage of a Falcon Heavy would be the hardest to recover due to its high speed and length.

Musk’s National Press Club announcement of September 29th, 2011, shows that the recovery plan includes having the first stage actually reverse course and land vertically back near the launch pad. This means the rocket has to cancel all eastward velocity and gain westward velocity, as well as decelerating the vertical component during landing. This would require a significant amount of delta-V that would reduce the payload capacity of the Falcon 9, but with the Falcon Heavy, which has extra payload capacity and where at least two first stages would be recovered, the payload size reduction may not be that big an issue. If a launch site could be found with an island in the right location downrange, payload capacity could be gained while still recovering the stages. The actual landing would take place with extendable landing legs on a level surface (without a flame bucket) and would use only a single engine. SpaceX has posted a video of the proposed recovery system.

We will not know how successful this system is until there is a successful landing and evaluation of a stage’s condition. The first SpaceX recovery concept was a water landing, which would have subjected the engines to severe salt water corrosion. Since the current prices are based on no recoveries, any recoveries should allow significant launch cost reductions. SpaceX would presumably have to demonstrate a launch using the recovered stages before a paid launch, just as it has already done with all of its vehicles.

Musk has publicly pledged to continue his efforts for both lowering launch costs and improving capability, so the currently described version of the Falcon Heavy is not likely to be the “last rung” in his launch ladder. With 53 metric tons of payload, the Falcon Heavy is not considered a “true” Heavy Lift Vehicle (HLV), which is generally considered to be one that can lift 70 metric tons or more. NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is an HLV that is slated for an initial version that can lift 70 metric tons and a later version that can lift 130 metric tons.

SpaceX, however, has expressed confidence it could build a Falcon “Super Heavy” launcher with a 150 metric ton payload capability and a cost per flight of $300 million. This results in a launch cost of $1,000 per pound, which is close to the per-pound cost of the Falcon Heavy but with a payload three times larger — a payload even larger than the largest payload projected for NASA’s SLS.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell wrote the following in a letter published in Space News (February 7, 2011):

“Based on SpaceX’s proven track record in scaling tenfold in thrust from Falcon 1 to Falcon 9, we are confident we can scale tenfold again and develop a heavy-lift launch vehicle with a 150 metric ton to orbit capability. We can do so for no more than $2.5 billion, within five years, on a firm, fixed price basis with payment made only on achieving hardware milestones.”

Musk was also quoted by Aviation Week (December 2, 2010):

“We’re confident we could get a fully operational vehicle to the pad for $2.5 billion — and not only that, I will personally guarantee it,” Musk says. In addition, the final product would be a fully accounted cost per flight of $300 million, he asserts. “I’ll also guarantee that,” he adds, though he cautions this does not include a potential upper-stage upgrade.

Musk has also made public statements about SpaceX plans to send humans to Mars in the next 10 to 20 years. Landing humans on Mars will take much larger in-space vehicles, some of which would require a 15 meter diameter faring which in turn requires a 10 meter diameter booster. No currently proposed heavy lift booster is this wide. Musk’s interest in Mars as a destination provides reason to believe that he will attempt to produce a cost-effective booster capable of launching Mars-bound, crew-carrying vehicles within 10 years.

Significant announcements from SpaceX can be expected as long as the company’s successes continue.

See also:

Falcon Heavy payload and launch cost comparison with Delta 4 Heavy
Complete video of the April 2011 Falcon Heavy Press Conference
Statement on launch costs from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk
NSS website version of this article
NSS website section on Space Transportation

SpaceX announces it will try for "fully and rapidly reusable rocket"

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk spoke at the National Press Club September 29 about SpaceX plans to develop a “fully and rapidly reusable rocket.” Musk stated that reusable rockets pose a very difficult engineering problem, but he believes it can be solved. Stating that SpaceX has a design that works on paper and in simulations, he emphasized that reality is the ultimate test. Although there is no guarantee of success, SpaceX is going to give it a try.

The SpaceX design for a reusable Falcon 9 rocket brings the first stage back to land propulsively. The second stage would do a re-entry burn, re-enter with a heat shield, steer and then rotate to land propulsively. Video below:

For the technically inclined, Musk reported that the video animation is not completely accurate, in part because the animation was completed before the analysis was, and in part to withhold some proprietary information.

“If it works, it will be huge,” Musk said, predicting a possible 100-fold reduction in launch costs. If a Falcon 9 costs $50 million and is re-used 1,000 times, that means its contribution to each flight would be only $50 thousand. The fuel for a Falcon 9 costs about $200 thousand. He did not supply a time frame for any of these developments.

Musk prefaced his remarks by talking about the importance of space and of life becoming multiplanetary, stating that the importance of that on an evolutionary scale can be compared to life coming onto land or developing from single cells to multicellular organisms. He also pointed out that space is a form of life insurance: extinction events are fairly common in geologic history, and “we are the only species that can use consciousness to avoid this.”

SpaceX recently filed papers with the FAA regarding planned test flights of a reusable suborbital vehicle (called “Grasshopper”) that is 106 feet tall and built around the first-stage fuel tank of the existing Falcon 9.

One-hour video of the full press conference:

Saving America from the Space Gap

by Howard Bloom and Jon LaBore

When a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying three tons of equipment crashed over Siberia on August 24th, Americans got a brief glimpse of a silent scandal: the space gap. That gap—planned in the days of the Bush Administration—means that for five years or more, America has no way to get humans into space. Yes, now that the Space Shuttle has been officially retired, the only way we can get Americans into space is to buy space on Russia’s Soyuz rockets from the Russian Federal Space Agency at a cost of $50 million per seat. With a price rise to $63 million in 2014.

But never fear. Four white knights are coming to the rescue. They come from America’s private sector. The development and deployment of their vehicles will mean not only jobs, but the beginning of a true space infrastructure. Like the builders of the transcontinental railroad a hundred years ago, these companies are building a trail into America’s next frontier.

The companies are Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Paypal co-founder Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Eren and Fatih Ozmen’s Sierra Nevada Corporation, and big-time airline builder and defense contractor Boeing. In April of this year, NASA awarded these four between $22 and $92 million each in the second round of its Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev-2), a commercial effort aimed to get Americans back into space on American rockets…safely, reliably, and at a considerable savings in cost.

Below are the launch vehicles that America’s private sector is working on to yank us out of the space gap and into the future.

Boeing:

Boeing’s CST-100 will be a reusable, capsule-shaped spacecraft with both a crew module and a service module. Boeing says it will rely on proven, affordable materials that can transport up to seven people or a combination of people and cargo. It will be bigger than the 1960s Apollo command module that carried astronauts to the Moon, but smaller than NASA’s Orion. The CST-100 will be able to hold up to seven people, or a mixture of cargo and crew. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon, the CST-100 is designed only for low Earth orbit.

The CST-100 is designed to dock with the International Space Station and with Bigelow Aerospace’s Commercial Space Station—the first privately owned space station. Bigelow Aerospace already has two test modules for its private space station in orbit and plans on having the first commercial space habitats by 2015.

With sufficient funding from NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program, Boeing could be ready to begin transporting astronauts to the International Space Station aboard its reusable CST-100 capsule in the first quarter of 2016 with all-NASA crews, says John Elbon, Boeing vice president and program manager of the company’s Houston-based Commercial Crew Program.

In August, 2011, Boeing chose United Launch Alliance’s nine year old Atlas V rocket as the delivery vehicle for the CST-100. A series of three test flights with the Atlas V and the CST-100 capsule are planned for 2015. But there’s a hitch. The Atlas V uses Russian-made engines, Russian RD-180s, for its first stage.

The good news? The CST-100 will also fly on SpaceX’s Falcon 9, an American rocket with American-built engines.

SpaceX:

The SpaceX Dragon capsule is a crew and cargo delivery spacecraft that will carry up to seven people or a mixture of personnel and cargo. The Dragon will launch atop an Elon Musk SpaceX rocket, the Falcon 9 (more about that below). In December of 2010, the Dragon became the first crew capsule ever placed in orbit and recovered by a private company. NASA is expected to give approval for the Dragon to dock with the International Space Station this December on the Dragon’s second test flight. It is likely that the Russian rocket failure might delay this flight into January.

The Dragon spacecraft is made up of a pressurized capsule and an unpressurized trunk used to transport cargo and/or additional crew members to Low Earth Orbit.  The Dragon is reuseable. It can be launched, returned to Earth, and launched again. In addition to International Space Station missions, the Dragon capsule is also designed to remain in space as an independent, orbiting space laboratory (DragonLab.)

And, according to SpaceX’s Musk, the Dragon has been designed from the beginning to be used for a mission to Mars.

The Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket. Its first stage is powered by nine American-made SpaceX Merlin engines. The second stage is powered by one Merlin engine.

Falcon 9 has had two successful flights. The first in June, 2010 and the second in December, 2010. On the second flight, the Dragon capsule orbited the Earth twice before splashing down.

The Falcon Heavy– a super high-capacity version of the Falcon 9–will be a stretched Falcon 9 rocket with two additional Falcon 9 boosters attached to either side of the first stage of the rocket. The Falcon Heavy will be capable of sending missions to Mars.

Sierra Nevada Corporation:

The Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser builds on a previous NASA design, the HL-20.  The Dream Chaser is a space-shuttle-lookalike for a reason. Its shape—a lifting body—will allow it to take off vertically and land horizontally. (In a lifting body, the craft’s body acts as a wing and produces lift.) Capable of holding a crew of up to seven people or a mixture of crew and cargo, the HL-20’s missions will include delivering and returning crew and critical cargo to the International Space Station. The HL-20 will launch using an Atlas V. Yes, the Atlas V with Russian rockets. Making us once again reliant on the Russians. The Dream Chaser is scheduled to take its first flight by 2014.

The fully-reusable Dream Chaser will glide back to Earth and can land at almost any aircraft runway in the world.

Blue Origin:

Blue Origin is working on (1) an orbital crew vehicle capable of carrying astronauts or cargo to the International Space station on an Atlas V rocket, and (2) a re-usable suborbital rocket called the New Shepard. The company also aims to eventually develop a reusable orbital rocket so they can also carry their orbital crew vehicle on their own rocket. Blue Origin’s goal is to bring down the cost of getting into space.

Development of the orbital crew vehicle is being partly supported by NASA’s CCDev program. In an entirely different program, NASA has also contracted to fly some suborbital experiments on the New Shepard rocket (Blue Origin being one of seven companies selected for such experiments).

The New Shepard is a rocket-propelled vehicle capable of carrying three or more astronauts into suborbital space. The New Shepard is designed to carry two kinds of passengers into a microgravity environment: space tourists and researchers.

The New Shepard is fully reusable. Its pressurized crew capsule for astronauts and experiments sits atop its propulsion module. Upon re-entering, the crew capsule separates from the propulsion module to be recovered via parachute, while the New Shepard propulsion module will land vertically.

Flights will take place from Blue Origin’s own launch site, which is already operating in West Texas.

Blue Origin reported that a test vehicle was lost at Mach 1.2 and an altitude of 45,000 feet on August 24th because “a flight instability drove an angle of attack that triggered our range safety system to terminate thrust on the vehicle.” Undeterred by this setback,  Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, stated in a letter on his website: “Not the outcome any of us wanted, but we’re signed up for this to be hard…. We’re already working on our next development vehicle.”

NASA Announces Design for New Deep Space Exploration System

NASA announced the following on their website September 14 (no costs were provided):

NASA is ready to move forward with the development of the Space Launch System — an advanced heavy-lift launch vehicle that will provide an entirely new national capability for human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit. The Space Launch System will give the nation a safe, affordable and sustainable means of reaching beyond our current limits and opening up new discoveries from the unique vantage point of space.

The Space Launch System, or SLS, will be designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, as well as important cargo, equipment and science experiments to Earth’s orbit and destinations beyond. Additionally, the SLS will serve as a back up for commercial and international partner transportation services to the International Space Station.

“This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that’s exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, kids today can now dream of one day walking on Mars.”

The SLS rocket will incorporate technological investments from the Space Shuttle program and the Constellation program in order to take advantage of proven hardware and cutting-edge tooling and manufacturing technology that will significantly reduce development and operations costs. It will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system, which will include the RS-25D/E from the Space Shuttle program for the core stage and the J-2X engine for the upper stage. SLS will also use solid rocket boosters for the initial development flights, while follow-on boosters will be competed based on performance requirements and affordability considerations. The SLS will have an initial lift capacity of 70 metric tons (mT) and will be evolvable to 130 mT. The first developmental flight, or mission, is targeted for the end of 2017.

This specific architecture was selected, largely because it utilizes an evolvable development approach, which allows NASA to address high-cost development activities early on in the program and take advantage of higher buying power before inflation erodes the available funding of a fixed budget. This architecture also enables NASA to leverage existing capabilities and lower development costs by using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for both the core and upper stages. Additionally, this architecture provides a modular launch vehicle that can be configured for specific mission needs using a variation of common elements. NASA may not need to lift 130 mT for each mission and the flexibility of this modular architecture allows the agency to use different core stage, upper stage, and first-stage booster combinations to achieve the most efficient launch vehicle for the desired mission.

“NASA has been making steady progress toward realizing the president’s goal of deep space exploration, while doing so in a more affordable way,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said. “We have been driving down the costs on the Space Launch System and Orion contracts by adopting new ways of doing business and project hundreds of millions of dollars of savings each year.”

The Space Launch System will be NASA’s first exploration-class vehicle since the Saturn V took American astronauts to the moon over 40 years ago. With its superior lift capability, the SLS will expand our reach in the solar system and allow us to explore cis-lunar space, near-Earth asteroids, Mars and its moons and beyond. We will learn more about how the solar system formed, where Earth’s water and organics originated and how life might be sustained in places far from our Earth’s atmosphere and expand the boundaries of human exploration. These discoveries will change the way we understand ourselves, our planet, and its place in the universe.

Orbital Propellant Depots: Building the Interplanetary Highway

by John K. Strickland, Jr.

August 5, 2011, was a highly significant date in the history of the space program. On that date, NASA announced contracts awarded to four aerospace companies to define demonstration missions to test the capabilities of cryogenic propellant depots. The contracts effectively created a design competition which would lead to the selection of a company to build an actual prototype depot. Cryogenic propellant depots are a critical component of our entire future space exploration and development effort.

A cryogenic propellant depot can rightly be called “a gas station in space.” If there were no gas stations along the interstate, you could only go about 150-200 miles from home by car before you would have to return. Just as gas stations extend the range of your car, orbital propellant depots would extend the range of your rockets.

For rockets and space vehicles, propellants usually take up 2/3 or more of their total mass. If a rocket puts a payload into an orbit from where the payload is intended to go further, such as to the Moon, that payload has to contain another smaller rocket and a final payload. Once in orbit, the first rocket’s upper stage is usually “out of gas” and since there are no gas stations in orbit right now, it becomes very expensive, useless space junk. If the “final” payload is expected to land on the Moon or Mars, it again has to have its own landing rocket and an even smaller final payload. This can be referred to as the Russian Nested Doll (Matryoshka) style architecture, with smaller rockets inside (or on top) of larger rockets. (A Russian Doll is a metaphor for an object with one or a series of similar objects inside it.) This is just the way things have had to be done since the start of the space age, since we have never had propellant depots in space. If a stage could be re-fueled in orbit, it could then be reused more than once.

When payloads are launched with cryogenic propellants, the propellants have to be loaded at the last minute since they start boiling off right away. A propellant depot does several very important things:

  1. It allows propellant to be loaded via docking ports from tanker rockets or propellant delivery capsules.
  2. It keeps the propellant from boiling away using multiple methods.
  3. It allows the propellants to be off-loaded into empty space vehicles and rocket stages just before a mission starts, while in micro or “zero” gravity in orbit, using the same or similar docking ports.
  4. It protects the fuel store with micrometeorite and space debris bumpers and maintains orbital stability and attitude, especially by aiming the solar shield towards the sun, and reports its condition and fuel status to the ground.

The typical propellant depot would contain liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, which respectively are about 430 and 300 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. To keep the propellant cold so it does not boil away, a depot can use four methods:

  1. Multi-layered super-insulation around the tank to reduce heat conduction.
  2. Structural isolation of the tank (like a thermos bottle) to reduce points where heat can be conducted through the structure into the tank. The depot will already be in a vacuum which is “free insulation.”
  3. A multi-layered sun-shield to reduce radiated heat from the Sun and Earth.
  4. An active cryo-cooler powered by solar panels to keep the fuel cold or to re-condense it as fast as it boils off.
Cryogenic propellant depot with single sunshade. Image credit: United Launch Alliance, B. Kutter, 2008.
Cryogenic propellant depot with single sunshade. Image credit: United Launch Alliance, B. Kutter, 2008.

NASA will probably select one of the four company designs to create a prototype depot. The designs will surely incorporate at least three of the four methods listed above. A prototype depot design may be based on an existing upper stage with its tanks. The initial prototype, which would cost between 200 and 300 million dollars, might not use the cryo-cooler part if it can demonstrate high efficiency with the static parts of its cooling system. Some companies have sophisticated and detailed designs which have existed for several years. One design might be able to keep boil-off losses to 1/10 of 1 percent a day or only 3 percent a month. It would probably hold at least 30 tons of propellants. Current cryo-coolers need to be scaled up from ones designed to keep space telescope instruments cold. For long duration propellant storage, a large cryo-cooler would definitely be needed, but it would not use a huge amount of power. The Spitzer space telescope maintained an insulated supply of liquid helium for its instruments without a cryo-cooler for 66 months.

A very significant result of having propellant depots in LEO is that it allows a spacecraft to be launched “dry” without fuel. This means that the total mass of the vehicle can be reduced by as much as 2/3 (the fuel), thus allowing a much larger spacecraft to be launched, or the same size spacecraft on a smaller rocket.

The same scenario can be used with depots placed at various destinations, such as geosynchronous orbit (GEO), L1, L2, or lunar or Mars orbit, where a depot would supply high performance cryogenic propellants to reach the Lunar or Martian surface. Depots can be sent to any destination orbit, since it is actually easier to keep the propellant cold away from the warm Earth’s infra-red radiation. The non-insulated or minimally insulated fuel tanks used by current spacecraft would lose all of their propellant during a trip to Mars, so only low performance (non-cryogenic) propellants have been used there to date. The depot can thus be considered as a component of a reusable in-space transport system that can do more than the sum of its parts.

Placing depots in remote destinations is the same as building gas stations in the mountains or the desert, far from the city. It allows you to conduct a full range of operations in the area of the depot with its secure propellant supply. If propellants can be created at the destinations from local materials, a local depot would provide a place to store them until they are needed. Since a depot can be a source of propulsion, energy, oxygen, and water, crew refuges may also be attached to remote depots as backup survival sites.

The cryogenic propellant depot is not only a critical part of the road beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), but would also be a boon for conducting routine operations in LEO. With the retirement of the Shuttle, the capacity to deliver large payloads to specific locations in LEO has been temporarily lost. Locations such as the space station or a propellant depot are usually thousands of miles from where a booster first enters orbit, and a booster, unlike the Shuttle, cannot move payloads around once in orbit.

Propellant depots offer an elegant solution to this problem because they could supply fuel to a reusable, insulated LEO space tug. The tug would remove the need for large payloads to carry their own propulsion systems to maneuver to locations such as the space station, the propellant depot, or other destinations. A space tug could also be used to rescue astronauts if they became stranded in an orbit away from the space station. A space tug was originally to be part of the space station program but was never funded. Such a space tug could be based on existing upper stages or upgrades of existing space station cargo delivery vehicles.

A re-usable LEO to GEO space tug can remove the need for the expendable upper stages currently needed to reach GEO. Such a tug would not be possible without an orbital propellant depot where it can refuel.

A low or Zero Boil-Off (ZBO) depot can be considered to be a propellant accumulator, since multiple small tanker vehicles can add propellant until the supply is sufficient for large missions. The value of a propellant accumulator can be illustrated by its potential use had it been included in the now-cancelled Constellation architecture. In that architecture, an Ares V would have been launched with a full lunar stack similar to that carried by a Saturn V, minus the crew capsule. NASA would have then had about two weeks to launch a crew to the orbiting lunar stack on an Ares I before enough of the hydrogen fuel boiled off to turn the multi-billion dollar stack into orbiting space junk and wasting the entire Ares V launch. Even a medium-sized cryo-cooler docked with the lunar stack in orbit would have been sufficient to keep the fuel cold. With a depot, a lunar stack could be launched dry (meaning a much lighter stack is needed, thus requiring a smaller booster, or alternatively a larger stack with the same size booster). The stack would rendezvous with the depot, load the dry stage that takes the stack to the Moon with propellant, and the stack would then leave Low Earth Orbit.

Using depots to re-fuel upper stages would mean that Heavy Lift Vehicles (HLVs) can be smaller than they would otherwise need to be. For example, a Falcon Heavy class HLV (50 metric tons) would be able to launch a dry payload equivalent to what an SLS class HLV (125 metric tons) would be able to launch wet, at a small fraction of the cost.

The new commitment of NASA money to propellant depot design lends more credibility to the concept. There are no fundamental barriers to building depots — it is an idea which has existed on paper for decades but for which no development money has been available. The longtime lack of funding acted to reduce the credibility of the idea despite its inherent value and technical feasibility. In addition, the business-as-usual focus on expendable launchers fostered a general lack of interest. Funding for depots was suggested by the second Augustine Commission in 2009 and is supported by Dr. Robert Braun, NASA Chief Technologist, as part of NASA’s advanced technologies initiative.

The four companies receiving the NASA contracts are Analytical Mechanics Associates Inc., Hampton, Va.; Ball Aerospace & Technologies, Boulder, Colo.; The Boeing Co., Huntington Beach, Calif.; and Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co., Littleton, Colo. Each contract is worth up to $600,000.

References/Links

This article as a permanent web page on the NSS website

Evolving to a Depot-Based Space Transportation Architecture (PDF paper 2010)

A Practical, Affordable Cryogenic Propellant Depot Based on ULA’s Flight Experience (PDF paper 2008)

Realistic Near-Term Propellant Depots: Implementation of a Critical Spacefaring Capability (PDF paper 2009)

LEO Propellant Depot: A Commercial Opportunity? (PDF slides 2007)

The Case for Orbital Propellant Depots (slides 2008)

Space Gas Station Would Blast Huge Payloads to the Moon (Popular Mechanics article 2009)

On-Orbit Propellant Resupply Options for Mars Exploration Architectures (PDF paper 2006)

NASA interest in an interplanetary highway supported by Propellant Depots (NASAspaceflight.com 2011)

Cryogenic Propellant Depots Design Concepts and Risk Reduction Activities (PDF slides 2011)

SpaceX readies for first private space station docking in December

NASA has agreed in principle to allow the SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule to dock with the International Space Station. Launch of the Dragon on a SpaceX Falcon 9 is scheduled for November 30 with the docking to occur 9 days later. This will be the 3rd launch of Falcon 9.

Original plans called for an additional flight to first demonstrate a rendezvous with the space station with actual docking to occur on a later flight. These two flights have now been combined into one flight, with final approval from NASA expected. This will be the first demonstration that a privately-developed space transportation system can deliver cargo to and from the space station.

Technicians work on the Dragon spacecraft in SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, CA
Technicians work on the Dragon spacecraft in SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, CA

See full SpaceX press release about the November launch.

The Dragon spacecraft heat shield is designed not only for re-entry from Earth orbit (at 17,000 MPH) but also for re-entry from a lunar-return trajectory (at 25,000 MPH).

Work also continues on modifying the Dragon spacecraft to human-rate it by adding a launch escape system. SpaceX received a $75 million NASA contract in April to develop this system. SpaceX plans to further modify the system in the future to make the spacecraft capable of landing on any solid surface in the Solar System. See the short video below.