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NASA, Commercial Partnership Could Resume U. S. Human Spaceflight in 2015

U. S. private sector astronauts could be launching into Earth orbit for the first time in 2015, ending a domestic human space launch hiatus that began with the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet in mid-2011, participants in the agency’s three- year-old Commercial Crew Program said Wednesday.

In this illustration, Boeing's CST-100 prepares to dock with the International Space Station. Image Credit/Boeing


The yet-to-be-selected private astronauts would be on test missions that complete the certification of new capsules and winged lifting bodies developed by three or more companies in the running to ferry NASA astronauts and their European, Canadian and Japanese colleagues to the International Space Station by 2017.

However, all of the timing depends on whether the White House and Congress agree to fund the effort at about $850 million annually over the next four years — a significant increase. So far, NASA has committed about $1.4 billion through three phases of development, while it also pays Russia $63 million for each astronaut launched to the station.

The competitors include  Boeing’s CST-100, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser and the SpaceX Dragon.  A fourth company, Blue Origin, of Kent, Wash., a participant in the first two phases of NASA nurtured development, has indicated it will continue to develop a commercial orbital transportation system as well. Each of the companies, and perhaps others that could seek NASA safety certification in the final phases of the initiative, are looking ultimately to space markets beyond the six person space station, which is expected to remain operational through at least 2020.

In this illustration, Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser approaches the International Space Station. Illustration Credit/Sierra Nevada

Each of the new commercial spacecraft will launch up to seven crew and passengers.

“This has to be an overall national initiative,”  Ed Mango, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, told a news briefing from the Kennedy Space Center, where the effort is headquartered. “It’s not just a NASA thing, having a capability to get Americans back into low Earth orbit. We are seeing growth in the American spaceflight industry.”

Program officials count 63 aerospace companies, including subcontractors and suppliers, from 26 states involved in the  effort.

SpaceX which intends to  field a crewed version of the Falcon 9/Dragon rocket and spacecraft that delivered cargo to the space station twice in 2012 appears to lead its competitors.

The Hawthorne, Calif., based company plans to reach the space station with a small crew of non-NASA test pilots aboard a reusable Dragon by the end of 2015, said Garrett Reisman, the SpaceX project manager and a former NASA astronaut. An orbital mission with SpaceX test pilots would launch earlier in 2015.

Boeing has a similar timetable, according to John Mulholland, the company’s Commercial Programs Space Exploration vice president and general manager. Boeing’s Houston-based program plans a three day orbital test flight with company astronauts in 2016, he said. Boeing has selected the Atlas 5 as the launch vehicle.

While SpaceX and Boeing have embraced capsule designs that would re-enter the atmosphere and descend under parachutes, Sierra Nevadahas opted for a spacecraft that resembles a small version of the space shuttle and be capable of touching down on a runway.

The Dream Chaser, designed to fly in an automated as well as piloted mode, will progress through a series of high altitude drop tests and suborbital test flights in both modes before Sierra Nevada is ready for an orbital flight, said Mark Sirangelo, the company’s vice president and space systems chairman.

Sierra Nevada has also selected the Atlas 5 as its launch vehicle.

Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX offered status reports on their development efforts and future plans at Wednesday’s briefing.

In December, NASA awarded each Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX contracts valued at $10 million to participate in a parallel program to devise a complex first-of-a- safety certification process that includes nearly 300 requirements.

They address fault tolerances — the network of backups to primary operating systems that ensure a crewed spacecraft can return to Earth safely in case of in flight failures; an abort capability, whether trouble develops on the launch pad or at a critical point in the climb to orbit; space station docking hardware and an ability to remain berthed to the orbiting space laboratory for up to 210 days; and a reliable landing strategy.

NASA’s  strategy is to foster at least two companies through the development and certification process — if funding permits.

That is a major concern, according to Phil McAlister, NASA’s Washington-based director of Commercial Spaceflight Development.

“The budget will be an extremely challenging topic, not only for this program but all NASA programs,” McAlister said. “We all have the same issues. We all feel like we could use and need more money to go forward. But we are in a very constrained environment. We will have to get what we get.”




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