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Commercial Crew: It was never about saving money

"Going my way?" NASA's astronauts have had to hitch a ride with the Russians since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011. Credit: William Neff/The Plain Dealer

“Going my way?” NASA’s astronauts have been forced to hitch a ride with the Russians since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011. Credit: William Neff/The Plain Dealer

The Bear knows how to play Monopoly

The last time NASA had to pony up for astronauts to hitch a ride to the International Space Station (ISS) with the Russians on their venerable Soyuz spacecraft, they paid — on average — nearly $82 million per seat, for a total of six seats. That’s $490 million to get six astronauts to the ISS.

Think about that for a moment: almost half a billion dollars to ferry six people to the ISS. It would appear that our formerly communist rivals learned that capitalism can sometimes be a very profitable thing – Soyuz seats have increased 384 percent in 10 years. Having no competition allows Russia to increase prices with relative impunity.

To be fair, that amount does cover more than just taxi service to the orbiting outpost — launch services and flight training are also included in that “low, low” price. However, that’s still a heck of a lot of money to be sending to a government that may be actively operating against American institutions.

Oh, and there are those little incidents in Syria and Crimea, too. It would seem as if it’s not the best idea to rely upon “The Bear” for any longer than is necessary.

Thankfully, since 2010, NASA has been working with private companies as part of their Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, with the goal of accelerating development of commercial space capabilities and returning human launches to US soil. Read More →

Crew access arm installed at SLC-41

The Crew Access Arm for Commerical Crew Program (CCP) being installed to the tower at Pad 41. Credit: NASA

The Crew Access Arm for Commerical Crew Program (CCP) being installed to the tower at Pad 41. Credit: NASA

Astronauts hoping to catch a ride to space on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner now have a way to board the next-generation spacecraft. The crew access arm has been installed at SLC-41, and will be the embarkation point for astronauts launching aboard the CST-100.

The 90,000 pound (40,823 kilogram) arm will stretch 50 feet (15.24 meters) from the launch tower to the spacecraft, allowing astronauts to enter the capsule via the ‘white room’. Nearly 18 months in development, the tower and access arm are some of the most visible changes to the launch complex and are evidence of the continued progress in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“You have to stop and celebrate these moments in the craziness of all the things we do,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, in a release issued by the agency. “It’s going to be so cool when our astronauts are walking out across this access arm to get on the spacecraft and go to the space station.” The launch tower and crew access arm are the first to be erected and installed at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since the Apollo program.

In an interesting bookend to the installation of the crew access arm, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) are preparing for a spacewalk to attach the recently-delivered International Docking Adapter (IDA) to the orbiting outpost. The IDA will allow visiting spacecraft, such as Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s crewed Dragon, to dock/berth to the station.

NASA selects six companies to develop deep space habitation prototypes

Conceptual image of a deep space habitation module. Credit: NASA

Conceptual image of a deep space habitation module. Credit: NASA

NASA recently announced they have selected six companies to develop ground prototypes of deep space habitation modules as part of the agency’s ‘Journey to Mars’. Though NASA has been making steady progress on their heavy-lift rocket – the Space Launch System (SLS) – and the Orion spacecraft, a lengthy interplanetary journey will require a dedicated habitation module.

To that end, NASA has partnered with Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems, and NanoRacks to develop prototypes and concepts of habitation modules suitable for such a journey. The companies will have approximately 24 months to produce a prototype and/or a concept study.

“NASA is on an ambitious expansion of human spaceflight, including the Journey to Mars, and we’re utilizing the innovation, skill and knowledge of both the government and private sectors,” said Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems in a press release issued by the agency. “The next human exploration capabilities needed beyond the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule are deep space, long duration habitation and in-space propulsion. We are now adding focus and specifics on the deep space habitats where humans will live and work independently for months or years at a time, without cargo supply deliveries from Earth.”

Developing ground prototypes is crucial in understanding how the habitats will integrate into an overall crewed system. Both physical and virtual models will be used to test and plan the layouts of the modules. It’s better to work through hundreds, or thousands, of iterations on the ground than to find out something doesn’t work once it’s on orbit.

Expedition 47 astronauts and cosmonauts gather for a group photo inside BEAM. Credit: Tim Peake/ESA/NASA

Expedition 47 astronauts and cosmonauts gather for a group photo inside BEAM. Credit: Tim Peake/ESA/NASA

One of the companies, Bigelow Aerospace, currently has a test module attached to the International Space Station (ISS). Their Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was launched to the ISS aboard the SpaceX CRS-8 mission on April 8, 2016, and subsequently attached to the orbiting outpost eight days later. After some initial hitches, BEAM was eventually fully expanded and pressurized. Though not nominally inhabited, astronauts will occasionally enter BEAM to recover test data to send back to Bigelow.

Bigelow expects to field their XBASE (Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement) module for the NextSTEP initiative. The 330 cubic meter habitat is based on the company’s B-330 spacecraft, though modified to attach to the ISS as a “visiting vehicle”. By comparison, BEAM is 16 cubic meters in volume.

Orbital ATK also hopes to leverage its experience with ISS operations. Based off the company’s cargo resupply ship, Orbital ATK looks to develop a solution derived from their Cygnus spacecraft. The enlarged module would operate in cislunar space, maturing the design and systems, while the company develops a Mars-focused roadmap.

You can read more about this initiative on NASA’s site, including the proposed designs from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and NanoRacks.

Concept of Lockheed Martin's NextSTEP-2 habitat with Orion. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Concept of Lockheed Martin’s NextSTEP-2 habitat with Orion. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is making progress

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner, Spacecraft-1 Upper Dome being lifted and moved to work stand inside the C3PF Highbay. Photo credit: NASA

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, Spacecraft-1 Upper Dome being lifted and moved to work stand inside the C3PF Highbay. Photo credit: NASA

The last major hardware component of Boeing’s second CST-100 Starliner—the truncated cone of the upper dome—recently arrived at one of the re-purposed Orbiter Processing Facilities at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, joining the lower dome and docking hatch, both of which arrived this past May.

You can read more at in my full write-up at SpaceFlight Insider.