New space flight paradigm takes shape in post-Space Shuttle age

NASA has unveiled its strategy to procure transportation services from private industry to carry U.S. astronauts to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.

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NASA has unveiled its strategy to procure transportation services from private industry to carry U.S. astronauts to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station. The agency’s Sept. 19 announcement also included news regarding the addition of optional milestones for the Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) initiative.

“This is a significant step forward in America’s amazing story of space exploration,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden. “It’s further evidence we are committed to fully implementing our plan — as laid out in the Authorization Act — to outsource our space station transportation so NASA can focus its energy and resources on deep-space exploration.”

NASA’s draft request for proposal (RFP) outlines a contract that will be awarded to multiple companies. Each company will provide a complete end-to-end design, including spacecraft, launch vehicles, launch services, ground and mission operations and recovery. The Integrated Design Contract (IDC) — estimated at up to $1.61 billion — will run from July 2012 through April 2014. NASA officials say they look forward to a strong response from U.S. bidders. Bolden also announced during a speech to the Air Force Assn.’s 2011 Air and Space Conference that NASA will fund optional milestones prenegotiated as part of some of the original CCDev2 Space Act Agreements (SAA) to help accelerate development. For example, NASA amended Sierra Nevada Corp.’s (Louisville, Colo.) SAA to include four optional milestones for a total of $25.6 million, bringing the potential value of Sierra Nevada’s SAA to $105.6 million, if all milestones are completed successfully. The agency also amended The Boeing Co.’s (Chicago, Ill.) SAA to include three optional milestones for a total of $20.6 million, bringing the potential value of Boeing’s SAA to $112.9 million, if all milestones are reached. The remaining two CCDev2 companies include Blue Origin (Kent, Wash.) and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX, Hawthorne, Calif). Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development, noted that the milestones were added because they will accelerate the development of commercial crew-transportation systems to justify additional NASA investment.

Earlier, ATK (Minneapolis, Minn.) and NASA announced on Sept. 13 a partnership to develop ATK’s commercial Liberty Launch System, an agreement that also supports the 2010 National Space Policy by furthering international partnerships.

The team signed an unfunded SAA that permits the Liberty program office to exchange information with NASA as the group develops a fixed-price commercial crew vehicle and prepares it for test flights as early as 2014.

ATK will provide the human-rated five-segment solid rocket motor as the first stage, and Astrium SAS (an EADS subsidiary, Saint Médard en Jalles, France) is providing the core stage from the Ariane 5 rocket, including the Vulcain 2 engine, as Liberty’s upper stage. Liberty has the capability to lift 44,000 lb/20,000 kg to low Earth orbit, reportedly the highest weight-to-orbit capability of any other vehicle currently working under commercial agreements.

The Liberty Launch System program has been underway for more than a year, and the team has successfully conducted a system requirements review and a system development review and continues to work toward a preliminary design review — all supported exclusively by internal funding. The current goal is to have a test launch in 2014, with a crewed flight on the vehicle’s third flight in 2015.

Elsewhere, San Diego Composites Inc. (SDC, San Diego, Calif.) reported that it has delivered its first composite Launch Abort System Fillet shipset to Lockheed Martin for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) program, designed not only to safely transfer astronauts to and from the International Space Station in the short term but also to facilitate travel to the Moon, Mars and other destinations beyond low Earth orbit.

SDC designed all the tooling and the manufacturing processes for the 8-ft/2.4m diameter by 10-ft/3m tall composite sandwich conical structures, using a Lockheed Martin design. SDC also fabricated several other challenging composite components for the CEV Ground Test Assembly, including composite longerons for the Thermal Protection Support Structure and acoustic blankets. The whole support team at SDC looks forward to the continuation of the program through Ground Test Assembly, Orion’s first flight test (OFT-1) in 2012, and beyond.

Meanwhile, The Spaceship Co. (TSC, Mojave, Calif.) — a joint venture of space tourism startup Virgin Galactic (Las Cruces, N.M.) and Scaled Composites (Mojave, Calif.) — on Sept. 19 opened its $8 million Final Assembly, Integration, and Test Flight Hangar (FAITH) at Mojave Air and Space Port. The 68,000-ft2/6,317m2 LEED-certified facility will be used primarily for final assembly, integration and testing of the WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft and the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) suborbital spaceship. The facility can produce at least two of each ship at the same time, An existing 48,000-ft2/4,460m2 building nearby will serve as its fabrication and vehicle-subassembly facility.

Further, Virgin Galactic confirmed on Oct. 13 an order from NASA for up to three flights that will enable engineers, technologists, and scientific researchers to conduct cutting-edge experiments in suborbital space. The agreement calls for NASA to charter without fail one full flight from Virgin Galactic, with options for two additional charter flights. If all options are exercised, the contract value would be $4.5 million (USD). 

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