Commercial Crew cuts in the FY2016 budget

24 07 2015

If that title did not draw you in, how about this: Congress is favoring pork projects over maintaining and growing American human spaceflight (HSF) capabilities. The committee that allocates NASA’s budget appropriated the full amount request by the White House for fiscal year 2016, but screwed around with the line items to fit their own personal agendas, rather than what would be best for the country.

The final Space Shuttle flight ended on July 21, 2011 when Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center. Since then, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft has been the only way to get people to space and back down again. Both the Soyuz TMA-M spacecraft and Soyuz-FG launch vehicle are reliable, safe, and affordable. However, it would take only a minor launch failure to ground them for several months. This happened when a launch failure during a Progress cargo ship launch earlier this year.

We need multiple spacecraft and multiple launch vehicles to ensure that no single incident can affect operations aboard the International Space Station. For example, if something goes wrong with Soyuz, we would be able to rely on Boeing’s CST-100 or SpaceX’s Dragon v2 while the Russians get up and running. CST-100 uses ULA’s Atlas V launcher and SpaceX launches Dragon aboard the Falcon 9 rocket. Three spacecraft and three launch vehicles means three layers of redundancy so that we will not ever have to abandon our $100 billion space station until its mission is completed.

Congress has shifted money away from Commercial Crew (CC), Commercial Resupply Services (CRS), and earth sciences. CC is still in the developmental phases. CRS is about halfway through its first round of missions and is vital for resupplying the station. SpaceX and Orbital ATK are the two partners in that program. NASA’s earth sciences are important for monitoring the condition of the Earth’s atmosphere and biosphere and for keeping tabs on the symptoms of global climate change.

The money drained from these programs has been moved over to development of the Space Launch System and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, NASA’s next-generation heavy-lift rocket and deep space exploration vehicle, respectively. SLS is not due to fly until 2018 and people won’t fly on it until at least 2021. The pace of development on SLS and Orion cannot be significantly increased by diverting more money to them at this point. NASA has warned that depriving CC of even a small fraction of the money requested by the White House could cause the program to slip its first launch date from 2017 to 2018, requiring NASA to purchase another four Soyuz seats for its astronauts at $75 million each.

The people who did this are just trying to keep people who worked on the Space Shuttle employed. That is exactly the reason Congress mandated that the SLS include a first stage derived from the Space Shuttle External Tank, four Space Shuttle Main Engines and a pair of five-segment solid rocket boosters derived from the shuttle’s SRBs. This is all money going to legacy contractors on a cost-plus basis. They hate CC and CRS because those programs send money to SpaceX and Boeing, not the people who get certain Senators reelected.

We need assured access to space. I am not upset by relying on the Soyuz to get people to space. I am worried that we only have one way to get people up there. We need redundancy. We need more than one option and I do not appreciate a bunch of lawyers with no technical expertise undermining programs that they do not understand so they can keep their jobs. It is very disheartening.

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ULA’s future

13 08 2014

Earlier today, United Launch Alliance CEO and President Michael Gass abruptly retired immediately following what was surely a tense board meeting. Mr. Gass was presumably let go after sanctions by Russia left the future of ULA’s workhorse, the Atlas V, in question.

Atlas V (401) launches with LRO and LCROSS

Atlas V 401 launch

The ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed to provide launch services. Their main customer is the US Federal government and the bulk of their flights are for the US Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office. NASA’s Mars rovers were also launched by ULA rockets. ULA was formed to consolidate operations and control costs for government space missions. Unfortunately, this has resulted in an effective monopoly and costs for government-related launches have gone through the roof.

ULA relies on two main launchers, Delta IV and Atlas V. Both of these are expandable and flexible to accommodate different launch requirements. The first stage of the Atlas V relies on the RD-180 engine, which is imported from Russia and is a result of the Soviet Union’s efforts to build a Moon rocket in the 1960s. It is a direct descendant of the NK-33, which was featured on the N1.

Though ULA bought the designs and the rights to build an American version of the RD-180, they have not because it would cost billions of dollars and at least three years. It was simply easier and cheaper in the short term to buy the engines from Russia. With tensions between the United States and Russia over Russia’s attempted annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the Russian government has made it as difficult as possible for ULA to buy these engines. Without any more engines coming in, ULA has enough for another three years of Atlas V flights.

Besides putting several American national security launches at the mercy of the Russian government, this is also likely to interfere with ULA’s participation NASA’s Commercial Crew program. Of the three candidate spacecraft, two of them, Boeing’s CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser, are expecting to use the Atlas V at around the same time the RD-180 stockpile dries up. (The third ship is SpaceX’s Dragon, which already makes use of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket.)


Delta IV Common Booster Cores

Delta IV Common Booster Cores being prepared for a Delta IV Heavy launch

With growing competition from new aerospace companies, SpaceX in particular, and a fleet of aging hardware, ULA needs to move fast to survive. They need cheaper, more capable launch vehicles with all major components (including engines) produced domestically. In the short term, plans should be made to sunset Atlas V after the existing stockpile of RD-180s is exhausted, but retain the Delta II and Delta IV series until a new vehicle can be put into service.

Russia's new Angara launch system

Four different configurations of Russia’s new Angara launch system

Delta IV’s use of Common Booster Cores (CBCs) is a clever idea and it should be retained. Russia’s upcoming Angara rocket family will eventually supplant Dnepr, Rokot, Proton, and Soyuz for most launch situations and will make use of its own version of the CBC. By manufacturing large quantities of smaller, identical stages and combining them as necessary, there is potential to drive costs down.

Both ULA systems use liquid oxygen as an oxidizer. The current Atlas V uses RP-1 and Delta IV uses liquid hydrogen. Other rockets, like Proton use hypergolic fuels, which are highly corrosive. There are advantages and disadvantages to every fuel combination and the best one to used would depend on the primary application of the rocket, as well as forthcoming technologies. The ideal fuel would depend on what sort of work ULA is doing in five years. If it’s small payloads, a solid-fuel rocket like the Minotaur would be appropriate. For the moment, Atlas V’s RP-1 first stage and LH2 Centaur upper stage are a very effective combination and would be ideal for medium-lift situations.


ULA went a long time without any meaningful competition and it will take some time for it to become competitive again. I am a big SpaceX fan and I hope that they will be allowed to fairly compete for Air Force contracts alongside ULA. That said, I wish ULA success and to compete with SpaceX so they can force each other to be better.


 

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