Today NASA announced new commercial partners to take over crew-transport to the International Space Station. Following in the wake of Russia playing hardball with astronaut training in Crimea, human spaceflight launches will finally be returning to the United States by 2017.
Top image: The International Space Station as seen from space shuttle Atlantis during undocking on May 23rd, 2010. Credit: NASA
NASA will make a major announcement today at 4 p.m. EDT regarding the return of human spaceflight launches to the United States. Whoever is chosen will have the goal to achieve certification of the system – including a test flight to the International Space Station with a NASA astronaut — in 2017, returning a critical capability to America and greatly expanding the scientific research potential of the orbiting laboratory.
While it'll be fantastic to see crew launches from the United States again, the timing is less about science and technology, and more about politics.
Last week, Russia announced that they were moving Soyuz crew training to Crimea. This meant that astronauts enroute to the International Space Station were left with a sticky choice: accept traveling to the location without getting a Ukrainian visa, explicitly accepting that Crimea is now part of Russia, or refuse, auto-fail the training, and be barred from launches to the station.
The change was announced in an unremarkable press release on reopening the Sevastopol training center. The Crimea center will be used for cosmonauts practicing their water training sessions in the Black Sea, a requirement in case the Soyuz return capsule managed to wildly miss the flat steppes of Kazakhstan.
ESA astronaut Timothy Peake during a water survival training session near Star City, Russia, on 1 July 2014. Image credit: GCTC
Astronauts regularly undergo survival training in case they land somewhere unfortunate. The possibility of Soyuz making water-landing isn't completely improbable. While they've never made an emergency evacuation before, if astronauts had to make an unscheduled departure from the space station, the implacable rules of orbital mechanics could easily dunk them in the ocean. Back in 1976, a Soyuz capsule landed in at night on partially-frozen lake during a snowsstorm. Cosmonauts Vyacheslav Zudov and Valery Rozhdestvensky were fine, but their evacuated capsule submerged and sunk, leading to an aggravatingly long and challenging recovery.
Reopening Sevastopol is very likely a political decision rather than a scientific one, as crews currently undergo water training at other, less controversial locations. They even practice in the Black Sea just outside Sochi, meaning that Sevastopol is non-unique in its training capacity.
Cosmonaut Anousheh Ansari practicing departing the Soyuz capsule the Black Sea. Image credit: GCTC
During the same announcement, head of the training center and former cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov mused about also reopening the coastal astronaut-recovery base at Yevpatoria. Yevpatoria is also the site of a major space-tracking facility, which is putting other space programs in a situation of either tacitly accepting that it's part of Russia now, or stop using the base to communicate with their space missions.
This latest wrinkle in astronaut transportation is following on deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozi's threats to close the station by 2020, taunts that American astronauts should launch themselves into orbit via trampoline, and closure of access to a GPS ground station.
So, what's an astronaut to do? Training is already complete for the next batch of astronauts to come to the station, while it's just starting for the group due to launch in January. Now that politics is pushing for an alternate route to the station, we may finally be getting a commercial crew transport vehicle. The preliminary information indicates NASA is partnering with a commercial company to start launching astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017. While that won't help the next crop of astronauts, but it's a clever way to use current political tensions to motivate Congress into finally funding American flight capability.
CNN speculated that NASA will be partnering with Boeing for crew transport, but considering Boeing helped with the ISS lab module not and doesn't do supply runs, it'd be a bit strange for them to suddenly leap to crew transport. (Their partner-company Orbital Sciences does do supply runs, yet only with destructive re-entry. Miket10 points out they also have X-37B). My guess is that we'll finally be getting SpaceX's reusable Dragon capsule crew-certified to take over astronaut transportation. Every other company only provides destructive re-entry, putting them behind the technology curve for safely returning astronauts to Earth.
You can follow along with the announcement live on NASA's various telecommunications platforms listed here . We'll be updating this article with the announcement, Dragon-related or otherwise.
Public Affairs Officer Stephanie Schierholz, NASA Administrator Bolden, Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana, Commercial Crew Program Manger Kathy Lueders & Astronaut Mike Fincke. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
4:07pm EDT: The introductory title-sequence was as rah-rah patriotic as you could hope. NASA's Kennedy Director Bob Cabana:
"This is a big day for us and I'm glad you all could come out here to see the work we are undertaking to transform America's premier launch site into a spaceport like no other. We've made a lot of history from here and with today's announcement, I think everyone will see that we are on course to accomplish much, much more."
Quote via NASA's Commercial Crew blog.
NASA Administrator Bolden continues the patriotism: "Today we're one giant leap closer to launching our astronauts from the U.S. on American spacecraft."
NASA selected Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Dragon v2's designs for crew-transport vehicles, in service by 2017.
As expected, Bolden is emphasizing how this will remove NASA's reliance on Russia. While the patriotic tone is boarding on absurd overkill, if exploiting current political tensions gets American space capacity funded, I'm not objecting!
They companies will need to meet Space Shuttle safety standards and hit various milestones in order to fulfill the contract and get paid the full amounts:
Once each company's test program has been completed successfully and its system achieves NASA certification each contractor will conduct at least two, and as many as six, crewed missions to the space station.
Quote via Casey Dreier.
4:13pm: Bolden is giddy that NASA's latest Orion splashdown recovery test yesterday was perfect. NASA will be continuing to work on Orion and the heavy lift vehicle for The Next Big Leap to Mars. When talking about the upcoming full launch test: "If you don't feel good over the coming weeks and months for the first time in 40 years we're launching a vehicle intended to carry humans beyond Low Earth Orbit..." He specifically thanks several of the hundreds of people working on the Orion and heavy lifter rocket projects.
I always appreciate how personally Bolden takes his job, and how deeply passionate he is about spaceflight. We might tease that it's not NASA until he wells up in tears, but it's hard not to like a guy who treasures exploring the vastness of space that much.
Former astronauts Charlie Bolden[left] and Bob Cabana [right]. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
1:17pm: Bolden, quoting Obama: "We will not only extend humanity's reach into space, we will strength America's leadership here on Earth." He's extremely proud of both the commercial partnerships for ISS transport, and the work being done on Orion and dreaming big to leave Earth and travel farther than ever before. But, the only way that Americans are going to Mars is if we have solid Low Earth Orbit infrastructure. By having commercial companies concentrate on making trips to LEO ordinary and predictable, NASA is free to concentrate on designing spacecraft to explore and carry humans somewhere we've never been before. Everything will depend on Congress continuing NASA's funding, and supporting the President's call for a humans-to-Mars mission.
1:18pm: Kathy Lueders: The vehicles will complete crew transport, then stay hooked to the station to be an emergency exit vehicle in the same way Soyuz currently does. Payment to Boeing & SpaceX will be dependent on completing milestones. Safety is primary; she goes into specific details of the safety-requirements the vehicles will need to meet:
NASA is committed to ensuring [these] systems are held to the same rigorous safety standards as previous government human spaceflight systems. We have worked carefully and diligently to assure our safety requirements span all mission phases and adequately address hazards, including pad emergencies, in-flight aborts and emergency landings.
Boeing and SpaceX and the Commercial Crew Program recognize the extraordinary work we have ahead of us to reach our goal of certifying a crew transportation capability in 2017. We are grateful to have worked with eight industry partners throughout the past four and a half years and we know industry is up to the challenges ahead.
Quote via NASA's Commercial Crew blog.
1:21pm: Lueders is proud of all eight commercial companies have been doing supply-runs to the station.She slips in the inevitable, "precious cargo" reference to astronauts; it's unclear if that's a poetic analogy, or if it indicates these will be fully-automated vehicles with no pilot/commander role.
1:23pm: Astronaut Mike Fincke considers vehicles as "keys to space." More on emphasis on safety. "They've brought the best of our unique skills and abilities" into the development. They're going to be "terrific machines, outstanding!" As for the challenge? "It's always the first 240 miles that are the most stressful." The crafts will stay docked as a lifeboat, then bring them home safely.
Astronaut and a former commander of the International Space Station Mike Finke. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
1:27pm: Fincke says this will open up the ability to cram more people on the space station, opening up the opportunity to do more research (more hands = more work, more frequent trips, and eventually even non-astronaut tourist flights to give more people the experience of being in space.
We should see a key when we look at these spacecraft, a key to the doorway of space that will be opened by more and more people. It's going to let us have more people working on the station, conducting more scientific research than we've been able to do so far. I don't mean one or two more observations a week, I mean the full-on studies we are counting on to fill in the gaps about long-duration spaceflight so we can survive the years-long trip to Mars and back.
Quote via NASA's Commercial Crew blog.
His sense of wonder remembering orbit is palatable; he wants more people to experience that fundamental shift in how they see the universe. He's the only one who drops hints to this also advancing the prospect of space tourism, giving more people the exhilaration of spaceflight.
1:29pm: "Looking up you can see the entire universe in front of you." Being in space changes your perspective, opening up how you see yourself, everyone else, and our world.
These spacecraft might seem pretty small to carry so many big dreams, but I think they'll do alright.
Quote via NASA's Commercial Crew blog.
1:30pm: Announcements concluded, it's time for a short question and answer session as one of the panel will need to go catch a flight. Presumably, not to ISS.
Q: Old space, new space?
A: Bolden: Collaboration between Orion NASA & commercial ISS-transport creates interesting ideas.
Q: How much will it cost?
A: Lueders: Boeing $4.2 billion, SpaceX $2.6 billion for full certification. Must complete at least one demo-flight with astronaut to ISS, maximum six flights.
Q: How hard to select? What made these designs different?
A: Neither Bolden nor Lueders part of panel. Lueders explains how lovely the selection panel was, but no real indicator of why these are special.
Q: Why is SpaceX cheaper than Boeing? Does future this depend on NASA's future budget?
A: Lueders SpaceX & Boeing meet identical requirements; payment based on what company's proposal. Bolden: Yes, everything depends on Congress supporting NASA. (Not said: Rah, rah, use that anti-Russia sentiment to fund American spaceflight capabilities, whoooo!)
Q: How many jobs where? How many will be on the spacecoast?
A: Lueders: We don't know what the particulars of each company are; go ask Boeing & SpaceX. "Today we're celebrating the awards, and making sure you understand what the requirements are." (I haven't tracked down what the requirements are yet, anyone have a link?) Cabana is excited that Kennedy is continuing to grow as a commercial spaceport, and that this validates everything they've been working towards.
That's pretty much it, folks! The only new detail from the post-event teleconference with Lueder is that the contracts require the capacity to carry four astronauts (more than the current three on Soyuz), and have a locker/storage deck to ferry supplies to and from the station.
Boeing is going to need to do some catching up, as currently Orbital Science's cargo supply runs with their Cygnus capsule end in destructive re-entry. SpaceX is starting ahead with a currently-functional return vehicle, the Dragon v1, which is going to get substantially flashier for the Dragon v2. I love that the difference between these companies can be summed up in their public responses after the announcements: Boeing has a formal press release, while Elon Musk and SpaceX post joyful tweets.
This is just the latest phase in developing industry providers for space station transportation. Previous steps required complete, plausible designs, the capacity to manufacture components, and some system tests. While only Boeing and SpaceX made it to the next round, this doesn't shut down other competitors like the Sierra Nevada Corporation from continuing to develop vehicles for future bids. From the Commercial Crew blog:
The selection of the companies won't end NASA's working relationship with other companies under their existing Space Act Agreements. The space agency remains committed to offering its extensive expertise in spaceflight to help companies advance their designs and potentially bring a spacecraft into operation on their own.
We're living in interesting times, folks. I'm unreservedly excited to see what the future brings, and am looking forward to using my "prototype" tag a lot more often on the Space subsite.