August 13, 2012
Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp. Concept
The three teams chosen to proceed in NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) program all have ambitions for their crew vehicles that go beyond the agency’s basic requirement of getting astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
NASA plans to spread $1.1 billion in seed money among Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada for CCiCap, to further nurture the development of U.S. vehicles that NASA plans to purchase services on at a cost far less than the $63 million per seat the U.S. government reportedly pays for Russian Soyuz rides (Aerospace DAILY, Aug. 6). The first orbital test flights are planned for 2016, with operational flights to begin as early as 2017.
Boeing’s partially reusable CST-100 capsule, which launches on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V, was envisioned from the outset as a possible transportation vehicle for the inflatable commercial space station concepts being developed by Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow already is a supplier to Boeing, and hopefully soon will be a customer purchasing CST-100 flights, according to John Mulholland, manager of commercial programs for Boeing’s space exploration division. Boeing also has an agreement in place with Space Adventures, which arranged the first-ever space tourism flights in partnership with Russia.
“We’re encouraged about the potential for this commercial market to emerge,” Mulholland said last week. “It’s really important that NASA has taken this first step in partnering with Boeing to help develop this capability.”
Although NASA’s commercial transportation efforts have been focused on low Earth orbit, SpaceX hopes its Dragon spacecraft could become “a generalized science delivery platform to almost anywhere in the Solar System,” according to company CEO Elon Musk. SpaceX has been in discussions with NASA about this concept, Musk says.
Although the current Dragon capsule is designed to splash down in the water, test flights of a retro-rocket system to allow hard landings will occur “relatively soon,” Musk says. Landing propulsively “also allows for potentially landing on other places in the Solar System, like the Moon, where there’s no atmosphere,” he says. If NASA adopts Dragon for delivery of payloads to other planetary surfaces, “what it could allow NASA to do is to focus its funding and resources on the scientific instruments themselves, and worry less about the landing system,” Musk says.
Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems division, says his company sees three alternative markets for its Dream Chaser lifting-body spaceplane, which would launch on an Atlas V and return to Earth for a runway landing. One potential market is servicing other spacecraft in LEO, “very similar to how the shuttle repaired the Hubble telescope,” Sirangelo tells Aviation Week.
Another would be long-duration, autonomous orbital stays of months or years that would allow for the testing and return of delicate scientific experiments or hardware. The third market would be orbital tourism.