NASA orders up a couple of space taxis
September 16, 2014 7:11 PM   Subscribe

It's official, Boeing's CST-100 and Space X's Dragon have been chosen to launch astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017, ending Russia's dominance as the sole provider of rides to the ISS, which they haven't been shy about using for leverage. Meanwhile, develop of the Space Launch System, designed for travel beyond low earth orbit, continues for its maiden launch in 2018.

After competition between those two companies and Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser, NASA has awarded 4.2 billion to Boeing and 2.6 billion to Space X to develop, test and fly spacecraft from American soil to the ISS.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (40 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm disappointed for Sierra Nevada. Dream Chaser is the modest Space Shuttle that should've been (and it reminded me of Farscape). Not that NASA was ever going to award most of the money to anyone other than Boeing, and Space X is the safe-looking alternative for their CRS successes.
posted by ddbeck at 7:42 PM on September 16, 2014 [6 favorites]


This is sort of interesting as the last few days have been full of leaks suggesting Boeing won the whole award and had been "selected", which may have indicated a large gap in performance or viability had opened up. Instead NASA will continue to conservatively hedge its bet here, which is actually an indicator of how strategically important getting at least one working system is to them.

I don't have anything against capsules per se, although I will admit to being wistful about the potential of lifting bodies, so raise a glass on behalf of Sierra Nevada.

OTOH SpaceX has the Grasshopper system that will ultimately represent the hopes and dreams of those who have fond memories of DC-X and Rotary Rocket. It's not SSTO but it is reusable with vertical landing potential, which would go a long way to reducing recovery costs.
posted by dhartung at 7:46 PM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


Boeing won because ULA knows how to do this. It may be expensive, but the Atlas V is a proven launcher, and Boeing has worked with NASA on manned spaceflight for years.

SpaceX won because, why they haven't got nearly the run rate that Boeing has, they have gotten payloads to ISS, and they're using the basic tried-and-true spam-in-a-can capsule design that NASA knows works. SpaceX, however, is going to discover the hard part about manned spaceflight is you cannot ever fuck up.

Sierra Nevada lost because they're not a capsule, and they're not close to being flight ready. They have an engineering test article and are building an atmospheric flight test article, but that's not a crew vehicle yet, nor even an orbital test vehicle, and nobody knows what they'll find out in actual structural and flight tests.

That's not stopping them, they've ordered an Atlas V on their own dime for a test flight in November 2016. But the prime driver on this is Russia becoming Assholes, and NASA picked the two firms that they thought could get to flight ASAP, one of them being the fastest zero to orbit company known, and the other having incredibly extensive experience at spaceflight, including manned spaceflight.

ESA is also very interested in the Dream Chaser, though they want to use the Ariane 5 as the booster, and would prefer to launch inside the 5m fairing rather than out in the open, which would require slight less wingspan.

I think there's some interesting things in the Dream Chaser design, but there are a lot of unknowns, and right now, NASA needs speed.
posted by eriko at 7:58 PM on September 16, 2014 [22 favorites]


Dreamchaser is working with the Japanese Space Agency, so it may still fly. Plus it'll still get some money from NASA if it meets some milestones, there's just no chance of being given a contract for flights to the ISS. I think that's the way it works.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:58 PM on September 16, 2014


From the CST-100 link:
Key Features
- Reusable up to 10 times
- Weldless structure
- Tablet technology
- Wireless Internet
- Boeing LED “Sky Lighting”
If Boeing builds capsules the way they build confidence, they'll have to cancel launches on rainy days because the cardboard would get soggy.
posted by phooky at 8:02 PM on September 16, 2014


SpaceX, however, is going to discover the hard part about manned spaceflight is you cannot ever fuck up.

The extent of this largely depends on the design. The Space Shuttle was a massive integrated system with numerous single points of failure, which ultimately proved to be its downfall. Soyuz cosmonauts, on the other hand, have survived horrific launch failures on multiple occasions.

Given the expense and difficulty of getting humans into orbit, and the existence of the ISS, the "tiny capsule on a simple rocket" approach is absolutely the right one to take at this point.
posted by schmod at 8:11 PM on September 16, 2014 [7 favorites]


Boeing built the first stage of the Saturn V and the unmanned x-37 "mini shuttle", so they're not exactly slouches with this stuff.

But admittedly, manned spacecraft are a whole 'nother beast. As Eriko said, you can't mess up, ever. That takes time, money and smarts and this isn't a pick 2 outta 3 situation.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:14 PM on September 16, 2014


It's not SSTO but it is reusable with vertical landing potential, which would go a long way to reducing recovery costs.

How?

STS landed exactly where it needed to every time it got low enough to be a glider. Most of the time, it landed at the SLF, and it was a 20 minute tow to one of the OPF. There were *legions* of reasons for STS's long turnaround time, but where it landed was not one of them, though you would lose a week if you had to land at Edwards AFB because of weather.

Then again, if you have to put the Grasshopper down somewhere else because of weather, you have the same problem.

If the mass of the motor + fuel is more than the mass of wings or parachutes, then vertical landing doesn't offer anything. Parachutes are cheap, easy, and reliable, but you lose exactly targeted landings. We went for ocean landings, because it was the simplest way, and we had to figure out everything along the way. The Soviets proved that ground parachute landings work. With wings, you just land on the runway. STS proved many things right or wrong, but the big worry on landing was missing the runway, and they never did.

I know you DC-X guys loved the thing, but it was in no way a spaceship and in no way going to become one. Landing on your tail requires hauling motors around and fuel around the entire trip. That's dead mass until the end of the mission, and the BIGGEST mistake STS made was hauling as much dead mass back to the ground as it did.

And, you know, there was a theoretical possibility that STS could land on a highway if it lost energy and couldn't make the SLF or Edwards. You lose the motor on a vertical landing, you fall and you die -- unless you carry an emergency parachute, in which case, you're carrying that much more dead mass, and, again, that's what made the shuttle suck.

The sucky part of our planet is how much energy we have to spend to get to orbit. The payback, though, is we can use that same aspect to get rid of the energy we need to get rid of to land, for free. It is just naive at best to be burning fuel when you can glide down or float down -- the mass of that motor and fuel could be payload, and payload on orbit is everything.

Though I will admit that the glide path of the shuttle was pretty fucking special. Here's the cockpit view, from STS-117. On the HUD, the left vertical scale is indicated airspeed in knots, the right vertical scale is altitude in thousands of feet.
posted by eriko at 8:19 PM on September 16, 2014 [11 favorites]


Meanwhile, Orion seems to be coming along as well. My kid's been offered a job at LM Eastern Range and she's angling for the Orion project so I'm kinda stoked about it right now
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:20 PM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's a pragmatic decision. We can't rely on the Russians given the current nature of international relations, so need our own solution. I'm just excited to see NASA in the news doing something other than getting their funding cut.
posted by arcticseal at 8:36 PM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


There were *legions* of reasons for STS's long turnaround time, but where it landed was not one of them

This is the thing that makes me skeptical of Space X's reusability experiments. After every flight, the Shuttle was torn apart, had every inch inspected, and reassembled. How does landing on a concrete pad instead of a runway reduce those costs? Does Space X expect to get away with less recertification work? I honestly wonder whether their reusability experiments are a way to bolster the appearance of their launcher's reliability in the absence of a long launch history (and that they'll go away as the history lengthens and the cost of the experiments increase).

Naturally, the best way to reduce recovery costs is to quit trying to recover anything. I guess that's why it's strongest single argument for robotic space exploration and suicide missions.
posted by ddbeck at 9:11 PM on September 16, 2014


Elon Musk sure does take a lot of government money for being a Galtian übermensch.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:17 PM on September 16, 2014 [5 favorites]


Parachutes are cheap, easy, and reliable, but you lose exactly targeted landings.

I'm surprised that they haven't tried a paraglider solution, perhaps supplemented by small reaction engines for relatively minor corrections. You could get pinpoint landings on a nearly parachute budget.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:28 PM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


And it looks like they did. Materials science and all the relevant engineering and experience has advanced kind of a lot since then, wonder if it's worth revisiting.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:37 PM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


More recently than that George_Spiggott - NASA's (cancelled) x-38 lifeboat (prototype) successfully used the largest parafoil ever made.
posted by Popular Ethics at 11:11 PM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


How does landing on a concrete pad instead of a runway reduce those costs?

TBPH, I am pretty certain that the vertical-landing stuff isn't for Earth at all, even if it's the type of sexy that might get eventually incorporated into the CCV program. I think it's actually for Mars. The point being that you would want your vehicle to serve as a habitat, and much like the Apollo LM, a ride home as well.

After every flight, the Shuttle was torn apart, had every inch inspected, and reassembled.

Ah, but to some extent that was the fault of Shuttle's wonky, awkward melded design. The idea of the DC-X was operational simplicity. Whether it succeeded in demonstrating that is a matter of opinion. But it was very much an engineering/management response to the insane complexity of Shuttle.

I mean, the flip side of eriko's objections are that you still need some way to get down. If you have a simpler design, the weight/mass considerations might come out in the wash, so to speak. It's the totality of the mission that needs to be considered. I see where eriko is saying that the vertical landing capability doesn't solve a problem (the way, say, that Shuttle's size and wingspan allowed it to handle spy sats in polar orbit and land safely in a Cold War world), and indeed it is probably not going to be in any first-generation SpaceX-designed CCV. But it may yet serve a purpose in a more heterodox space launch culture than the one we have now, where ISS up/down capability is essentially it (as far as crew is concerned). This is where Musk is obviously thinking ahead, arguably too far ahead, but also in a way that attracts attention and interest, perhaps in a "which one do you want to ride?" sense. I mean, I don't think they're doing it for shits and giggles.
posted by dhartung at 11:22 PM on September 16, 2014


To everyone speaking of the Atlas V, what is the USA's solution to replacing the RD-180? I think we've learned that relying on that supplier was unwise.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 12:43 AM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]




they've ordered an Atlas V on their own dime

Is that available on Prime?
posted by backseatpilot at 3:53 AM on September 17, 2014 [5 favorites]


Why has Scaled Composites seemed to slow down? They do seem to be close to the first sub-orbital flight, once that happens couldn't they trade the weight of a few "tourists" for enough fuel to boost to the ISS? Then if they can fly there twice in the same day, that'd change things.
posted by sammyo at 4:13 AM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


They do seem to be close to the first sub-orbital flight, once that happens couldn't they trade the weight of a few "tourists" for enough fuel to boost to the ISS?

No. The main difficulty in reaching orbit isn’t getting high enough; it’s going fast enough to stay there.

SpaceShipOne required approximately 1.4 km∕s Δv to reach 112 km up and glide down. Rendezvous with ISS requires something like 9.4 km∕s.

Because of the tyranny of the rocket equation, that’s much more than six times as expensive. You need six times as much fuel to accelerate the space ship’s original structure and payload six times as much, but you must also accelerate that extra fuel with yet more fuel.

You’ll need larger tanks to house the fuel, and then you’re increasing the size of the ship’s body, increasing drag and adding yet more structural mass. Finally, you need a more powerful, heavier engine and a more robust landing system (e.g. larger wings).
posted by Fongotskilernie at 4:55 AM on September 17, 2014 [3 favorites]


Kind of interesting yet depressing that, while I grew up watching the original Star Trek and dreaming of the cool space stuff I would see as an adult, basically all we're getting is variations on the ship from Méliès' A Trip to the Moon.
posted by jabah at 5:13 AM on September 17, 2014


Shame the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser didn't make the cut, but it seems clear NASA is only interested in capsule solutions what with these two picks and Orion. Perhaps if the Dream Chaser had gone the MiG-105 route and used variable dihedral so it fitted into a 5m fairing, it may have had a better chance.
posted by cobrabay at 5:55 AM on September 17, 2014


It's a variation on the CSI effect. Having grown up watching multiple versions of spaceships wizzing around the galaxy, we're disappointed with the reality we've only gone as far as the Moon and only after great difficulty and expense.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:57 AM on September 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yep typed before arithmetic. I knew SpaceshipTwo was getting suborbitial and had passengers so it seemed that cutting down on the number of passengers and adding fuel might just let it boost up a bit... They do say on their web site that a new fuel will let them get all the way to the 100Km level but yeah 6-7 times faster does not seem likely. Now once they're doing daily 2 hour shuttles between Beijing and Dubai perhaps it'll fund SpaceshipThree with regular flights to the Bigelow hotel.
posted by sammyo at 7:41 AM on September 17, 2014


This is the thing that makes me skeptical of Space X's reusability experiments. After every flight, the Shuttle was torn apart, had every inch inspected, and reassembled. How does landing on a concrete pad instead of a runway reduce those costs?

OTOH, it seems like the finances in this regard are pretty simple. It costs $X to build a new rocket and $Y to inspect and refurb a used one to the same spec. As long as $Y is less than $X (including the sunk costs of developing the reusability), it makes sense.
posted by smackfu at 8:06 AM on September 17, 2014


I hope SpaceX didn't undercut their bid to get the job at half the price of Boeing they could have charged more and put more into safety.
posted by stbalbach at 8:15 AM on September 17, 2014


Elon Musk sure does take a lot of government money for being a Galtian übermensch.

But does he claim to be one? I honestly don't know.
posted by snofoam at 8:22 AM on September 17, 2014


Shame the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser didn't make the cut, but it seems clear NASA is only interested in capsule solutions

So maybe I'm overly fixated on one particular aspect of a complicated balancing effort, but if I'm NASA and I get to pick a new spacecraft, I think one that relies on deployable landing gear is immediately ruled out in my mind. It worked for the shuttle, somehow, miraculously, but if on any flight you get anything less than 100% perfect deployment of the landing gear it's LOCV and there's no way around that. There's no way to provide true redundancy, the best you can do is provide multiple methods for actuating the same gear.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:22 AM on September 17, 2014


Space Taxi, you say?
posted by ymgve at 8:23 AM on September 17, 2014


After every flight, the Shuttle was torn apart, had every inch inspected, and reassembled. How does landing on a concrete pad instead of a runway reduce those costs?

The Shuttle was badly financed from the get go and they couldn't run enough tests for the completely new way they did things, like the engines and tiles. Hence heavy duty maintenance after each flight.

I think there was supposed to be a major revision of the main engines that was much more reusable, to appear in the early 00s, but were canceled due to expense or the program coming to a close.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:45 AM on September 17, 2014


Elon Musk sure does take a lot of government money for being a Galtian übermensch.

But does he claim to be one? I honestly don't know.


He doesn't.
posted by michaelh at 9:36 AM on September 17, 2014


Keep on chasing that dream.
posted by ckape at 10:47 AM on September 17, 2014


Musk's politics are a little bit murky -- he's given to both Democrats and Republicans, and seems largely to be of the Silicon Valley technolibertarian bent -- and he's been compared to Galt as both approval and opprobrium, but I don't think a true acolyte would tweet this. Even so, it's clear that he has sympathies in that direction, having sent SpaceX employee #14 to talk up the company at the Atlas Society annual meeting. That article is interesting in light of this thread in that it talks about the SpaceX pricing strategy, which is as close to Walmart as you can get, I suppose -- and something of the inverse of what has usually been done in this sector.

Brandon, the RS-25 SSMEs were revised several times during the program, with two major generational transitions (in my reading), from the original design to Block I and then to Block II used from 2001 on (you can also mark them by RS-25A through RS-25D). The RS-25 is going to be part of SLS, so it's still evolving. They had an average of 8-10 flights per engine (47 built, 46 used, 405 engine flights), so I'd call that fairly reusable. The big Shuttle upgrade that never happened was really replacing the SRBs with the more powerful ASRM ($2B research and prototype budget, then cancelled), and the big one on paper was replacing them altogether with liquid-fueled flyback boosters (that would "recover" themselves), an option that was never really funded and lost purpose after Columbia essentially put a future cap on the orbiter program.
posted by dhartung at 10:52 AM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


There is fascinating stuff in this thread. There would be more if I could understand all the TLAs.
posted by clawsoon at 5:19 PM on September 17, 2014


The RS-25 is going to be part of SLS, so it's still evolving.

(Those looking for the earlier history of the RS-25, google SSME.)

Yeah. The RS-25 proved to be an oustandling reliable engine. The bad -- it wasn't cheap. It was, by far, the most expensive rocket motor we built. Yes, that includes the F-1.

The good thing. By flight, the RS-25 was the *cheapest* rocket motor we ever built. It was also the single highest performing engine we've built and used more than once, measured by specific impulse. There's a really good reason to keep working with the RS-25 design. It's an amazingly good motor.

The SRBs turned out to be really good once we fixed that bad joint seal problem. The sad thing was it took STS-51L to realize that we needed to fix it. But once we did, the SRBs were perfect through the rest of the program, and indeed, on the stack that flew STS-135, the final shuttle mission, there was a segment of the right SRB that flew on STS-1*.


*Again. Please don't make me deal with STS mission numbers. Ok, Fine. The were weird in many ways. The simple "STS-X, where X equals launch number" was ditched after STS-9 when they realized that there would be an STS-13 and OMG Apollo 13 oh nozs. So we had the "budget year-letter" sequence, through STS-51-L. That was the Challenger disaster, so we restarted with STS-26, which was the 26th mission, but then we booked numbers on mission acceptance, and missions were cancelled or moved. So, we had STS-119, which flew between STS-126 and STS-127. There was also the STS-3XX series of contingency missions, none of which flew.


** TLA translation. STS= Space Transportation System, the name of the program that produced the US Space Shuttle. SRB= Solid Rocket Booster, the two large boosters left and right of the large orange tank on a Shuttle launch. TLA=Three Letter Acronym. RS-25 was a model number, but RS was "Rockodyne Spaceflight" when it was originally conceived.
posted by eriko at 7:45 PM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


More translations.

SLF: Shuttle Landing Facility, the very long runway at the Kennedy Space Center, ICAO code KTTS, FAA ID TTS.

OPF: Orbiter Processing Facility, the buildings where they worked on the shuttles. OPF #3 has been leased to Boeing for work on their capsule.

AFB: Air Force Base. AFS, if you run into it, is Air Force Station.

HUD: Heads Up Display -- an information display built so you don't have to look down into the cockpit to read it.
posted by eriko at 7:50 PM on September 17, 2014


ETLA= Extended Three Letter Acronym.

IMTLA= Increasingly Misnamed Three Letter Acronym.
posted by eriko at 7:51 PM on September 17, 2014


At SpaceX we instead have ASS = Acronyms Seriously Suck
posted by Feantari at 8:47 PM on September 17, 2014


Yeah, if you read the NASA Spaceflight forums, the acronyms often make posts completely incomprehensible unless you are already deeply following the subject.
posted by smackfu at 6:38 AM on September 18, 2014


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