Race to Build NASA Space Taxi Down to the Wire
This iconic photograph shows NASA's space shuttle Endeavour docked to the space station in 2011 during its last mission. Since the retirement of the Shuttle Program, NASA has depended on Russia for rides to low-Earth orbit. US commercial spaceflight companies are now competing to provide taxi services for NASA astronauts.
Image: A view of the shuttle's payload bay wi
July 15, 2011 --
The final space shuttle mission (STS-135) to the International Space Station (ISS) continues. Supplies have been delivered by shuttle Atlantis and the final "shuttle era" spacewalk has been successfully completed. Here are a selection of photographs from the busy ISS since Atlantis docked with the orbital outpost on July 10.
While Atlantis was docked to the space station, a member of the STS-135 crew snapped this picture of some of the islands in the Bahamas, off the coast of the Florida peninsula (right). Miami can be seen toward the top right of the photograph. Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center are located out of shot in the bottom right of the photo.
Welcomed... Fruit? Shortly after docking with the space station, the Atlantis crew (including STS-135 pilot Doug Hurley, left) gave the resident space station crew supplies of fresh food. With a smile, Expedition 28 flight engineer Mike Fossum (right) receives a bag of fruit.
While aboard the space station, the STS-135 crew are working on many tasks during their short stay. STS-135 commander Chris Ferguson (right) can be seen here working with Japanese astronaut and Expedition 28 flight engineer Satoshi Furukawa in the Quest airlock inspecting space suits assigned to NASA astronauts Mike Fossum and Ron Garan prior to the July 12 spacewalk.
Say "Cheese"! During the six and a half hour spacewalk to retrieve a failed ammonia pump module from an external storage platform and install a robotic refueling demonstration apparatus, NASA astronaut Mike Fossum takes a picture while Atlantis is docked behind him. Fossum can be seen restrained on the end of the space station remote manipulator system (Canadarm2).
Mike Fossum points at the camera as he waits at an International Space Station pressurized mating adapter (PMA-2) docked to the space shuttle Atlantis, as the station's robotic system moves the failed ammonia pump module (out of frame) over to the spacewalking astronaut and the shuttle's cargo bay.
Robotic Assistance Mike Fossum, while attached to Canadarm2, holds the Robotics Refueling Mission payload -- one of the main tasks to be carried out during the spacewalk. The failed pump module can be seen with the two-armed robot, Dextre, on left side of the photo.
Shuttle Stowage With his feet secured to Canadarm2, NASA astronaut Ron Garan carries the failed ammonia pump module toward shuttle Atlantis' open payload bay. When Atlantis returns to Earth on July 21, engineers will study the module to see how it failed and how the problem can be avoided in the future.
In addition to installing/removing space station hardware, STS-135 delivered up to a years-worth of supplies. STS-135 mission specialist Sandy Magnus can be seen here floating inside the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module that Atlantis carried to the space station. Magnus is surrounded by the supplies for consumption of the space station residents for the months ahead.
A Picnic, Shuttle Style Seven astronauts -- six from NASA and one from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) -- and three Russian cosmonauts participate in a special meal on the Space Shuttle Atlantis' middeck on July 14. The STS-135 crew consists of NASA astronauts Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim; the Expedition 28 or station crew members are JAXA astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, NASA astronauts Ron Garan and Mike Fossum, and Russian cosmonauts Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev and Sergei Volkov. All photographs can be found in NASA's Human Spaceflight Gallery.
A three-way race to build a commercially operated spaceship to shuttle astronauts -- and other paying customers -- to and from low-Earth orbit is close the finish line, with NASA aiming to award development and flight service contracts as early as next week.
So far, two companies favoring capsule designs -- Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX -- have won the lion’s share of NASA’s Commercial Crew program funds. The effort, which began in 2010, is intended to provide a U.S. alternative for flying crews to the International Space Station, which orbits about 260 miles above Earth.
Since NASA retired the space shuttles in 2011, the only human transportation system flying to the station is owned by Russia, which charges about $70 million per person for rides on its Soyuz capsules. NASA hopes to change that before the end of 2017.
Along with Boeing and SpaceX, NASA has been funding space taxi design work at a third company, Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corp., though its contracts have been about half of what Boeing and SpaceX received.
Sierra Nevada eschewed the capsule design in favor of a small winged spaceplane called Dream Chaser, which resembles a miniature space shuttle. The company has signed partnership agreements with more than 30 companies, nine universities, nine NASA field centers and three international space agencies, a strategy that could provide some flexibility if it is not selected for additional NASA funding.
“We’ve always looked at this as a system, with the space station being a mission. There are other missions that we are looking at. Having this wide group of companies allows us to look at construction, repair missions, the ability to do short- and long-duration science missions independent of the space station,” Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada Space Systems president, told Discovery News.
“For us, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars less at the start of the competition put us at a schedule disadvantage -- we couldn’t do as many things -- but it made us be a lot more creative in how we were going to manage the last two years,” Sirangelo said.
“Showing that you can manage to a very tight budget is a pretty big thing,” he added.
Like Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, the Dream Chaser initially would fly on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, which uses a controversial Russian-built motor to power its first stage. Russia has threatened to cut off exports of the motors for military missions in response to U.S. embargoes punishing Russia for incursions into Ukraine. So far, however, the rocket business has continued unimpeded.
SpaceX, which already flies cargo to the space station aboard its Dragon capsules, is adding seats, life support and other upgrades for a passenger version. Both types of Dragon spacecraft launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.
So far, NASA has spent about $1.5 billion on the Commercial Crew program. The agency says competition is critical to drive down costs and reduce technical risks. It intends to continue backing development of two space taxi designs, though has not said how it will pay for that.
As part of the program, companies contribute development funds and will own their vehicles and intellectual property. NASA wants to buy flight services, similar to how it pays SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp to make supply runs to the station.
Even without NASA funding, SpaceX says it will continue developing its human version of Dragon, albeit at a slower pace.
Sierra Nevada will wait to see what happens with the contract awards before deciding how to proceed, said Sirangelo.
“If we weren’t a winner, we need to understand why and that’s going to factor into our thinking ... but we’re still planning to move forward,” Sirangelo said.
Boeing’s take is that without NASA investment and flight service contracts, building a business case for the CST-100 “would be very difficult to do,” John Mulholland, Boeing vice president, said earlier this month at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space 2014 conference in San Diego.
Contract awards are expected by early September.