Capturing SpaceXs Dragon

Manned spaceflight becomes a business

Mark Williamson spies a landmark moment in the tortuous commercial journey from PowerPoint presentation to actual orbit.

Regular attenders of space conferences are used to hearing predictions and promises about the ‘commercialisation of space’, in particular when it comes to transporting people to orbit. But manned space exploration has always been the province of government-funded space agencies that stipulate the destination - be it the Moon or the International Space Station - and sign contracts with industry to supply a single, unique spacecraft design. Though more than one contractor bids for the work initially, the concept of multiple suppliers is anathema to manned spaceflight. That may be about to change, however. Satellite communications and, more recently, Earth imaging have become established commercial space applications, in that satellites are bought by the private sector, insured as commercial assets and used to generate income from the services they provide. But that’s more or less where space commerce begins and ends.

Most launch vehicles, while often billed as ‘commercial’, rely on government subsidies in the form of non-competed launch contracts, infrastructure maintenance, or research and development funds for upgrades. This is not a criticism: it simply reflects the fact that it is far more difficult to launch hardware - let alone people - into space than it is to establish, say, a transatlantic airline.

Nevertheless, history shows that there is usually a tipping-point in the tortuous transition from PowerPoint presentation to reality when it suddenly becomes clear that real developments are afoot. For me, that point occurred at the inaugural Spacecraft Technology Expo, held 8-10 May 2012 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Through a slow-burn combination of conference sessions and visits to the accompanying exhibition, I realised that manned spaceflight proponents really do see crew transport to the ISS, and its sister ‘app’ space tourism, as the next commercial space application.

It all begins with Nasa’s need for a home-grown method of transporting crews to the ISS in the wake of last year’s Space Shuttle retirement (it currently pays around $63m a seat to fly astronauts on the Russian Soyuz). Although there are several contenders, it is generally agreed that SpaceX, the rocket-builder financed by serial software entrepreneur Elon Musk, is the front-runner for commercial crew delivery services because of the development of its Dragon capsule.

A Dragon was successfully berthed at the ISS on 25 May, demonstrating its ability to deliver supplies rather than crew, but the intention to qualify the capsule for crew delivery has been clear for some time. As former Nasa astronaut and programme manager for DragonRider, Garrett Reisman, pointed out at the Expo: “Dragon has a window. I don’t know of any cargo that needs a window!”

A full-scale mock-up of the capsule on prominent display at the exhibition testified to Reisman’s optimism for Dragon’s future role: it came complete with six seats and no less than three portholes. It may have been no more than a high-fidelity model, but it is hard to ignore the fact that its real-life, flight-proven sibling has docked to the ISS and, during unloading, formed the only barrier between station astronauts and the vacuum beyond.

Another crew-delivery capsule for which PowerPoint proposals are history is Boeing’s CST-100 (Crew Space Transportation), originally designed for Nasa’s defunct Constellation programme and now the poster-child for established industry’s bid to transport humans to orbit. The completed capsule is currently under test and, according to Keith Reiley, Boeing’s deputy programme manager for commercial crew, could fly as early as 2015.

However, the important aspect, as Reiley confirmed, is that even Boeing (whose heritage companies built Apollo and the Shuttle for Nasa) is acting commercially now. “Folks think about Boeing as a cost-plus contractor,” he said, “but aircraft are not done that way” and neither is the CST-100. Not only is Boeing “actually investing”, he added, but its capsule is designed to be compatible with multiple launch vehicles in the same way as the company’s satellites. This in itself is a leap from Nasa’s usual way of doing business, which specifies manned spacecraft and launch vehicles as an integrated system.

As an indication of how far Boeing is ‘thinking outside the box’ on crew delivery, it has incorporated specifications from Bigelow Aerospace, a private US company planning to launch and lease inflatable space stations to governments and commercial customers as soon as it has a way to launch the crews. It was Bigelow, which proved its concept by launching two inflatable ‘pathfinder’ modules in 2006 and 2007, that asked for up to seven crew, explained Reiley, which is why the CST-100 has seven seats.

In addition to SpaceX and Boeing, two other potential crew transporters - Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada - have received funding under Nasa’s Commercial Crew Development programme. Neither company had much progress to announce at the LA Expo, but what might be considered a wild card appeared in the guise of a relatively little-known venture between US rocket-builder ATK and EADS Astrium, the manufacturer of the Ariane 5 core stage.

When the venture’s new rocket, Liberty, was announced in February 2011, it evoked relatively little interest. It was clear that it combined two tried-and-tested elements (an extended Space Shuttle solid motor topped by an Ariane liquid core stage) in a novel transatlantic alliance, and could readily be man-rated as Ariane was originally intended to launch a mini-shuttle called Hermes. However, all the crew-capsule hopefuls (apart from Dragon, which uses SpaceX’s own Falcon 9) were already signed up with the Atlas V.

The announcement at the Spacecraft Technology Expo that ATK was pitching Liberty complete with a privately-built crew capsule caught many by surprise. The composite crew module, manufactured by ATK as part of an earlier Nasa programme to establish whether composite materials offered a viable alternative to aluminium-lithium, was just waiting to be ‘repurposed’, as the jargon has it. As a seven-person carrier, it could be reused for up to 10 missions to the ISS, according to Liberty programme manager Kent Rominger.

Rominger also confirmed that the company is targeting Bigelow, other nations, and even the space tourism market. Although Virgin Galactic and its competitor XCOR, which exhibited a full-size model of its Lynx spaceplane and a ‘snug-fit’ cockpit mock-up at the Expo, plan to offer sub-orbital tourist flights in the near future, orbital tourism is at least an order of magnitude more difficult and expensive.

Like Boeing, ATK expects to be able to launch a crew in 2015, be fully available to the market by 2016 and charge less than Russia’s current $63m per seat. Can I see a price war coming? How commercial is that?

As ever, it’s anybody’s guess which supplier will be first to market, but you can expect to hear more talk of a ‘new paradigm’ in space commerce before the first astronauts are delivered. Immediately after May’s unmanned Dragon launch, Nasa Administrator Charles Bolden announced excitedly that they were “back at the brink of a new frontier”, while Elon Musk characterised it as “the dawn of a new era”.

In fact, as pointed out by SpaceX’s Reisman, Nasa is already buying commercial services from the Russians without the usual in-depth technical oversight it typically demands of its contractors, so it’s not a huge leap of faith to buy similar services from a US-based commercial provider. Whichever taxi Nasa hails for a ride to the station, the next few years will be interesting for commercial spaceflight. *

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