Commercial firms await NASA's call to serve station
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: December 22, 2008
The major players, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Orbital Sciences Corp. and the PlanetSpace Inc. consortium, are eagerly awaiting Tuesday's announcement.
One, two, or all three companies could win contracts to deliver, return and dispose of space station equipment. NASA officials project needing to transport more than 181,000 pounds of supplies to and from the complex between 2010 and 2015, the bookends of the "gap" between the scheduled retirement of the shuttle and the first flight of the Orion spacecraft.
The Commercial Resupply Services contract will cover at least 44,000 pounds of the expected cargo transportation requirement in the five-year gap. But the pot could be much bigger.
The maximum value of the contract could open up to $3.1 billion in funding to the winners.
NASA is trying to procure cargo capacity from U.S. companies to avoid relying on international vehicles for critical supply deliveries. International options include Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle, Japan's H-2 Transfer Vehicle and the venerable Russian Progress spacecraft.
SpaceX is offering their new Dragon spacecraft, Orbital Sciences has proposed using the Cygnus cargo capsule, and PlanetSpace is teaming with Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. to build modular Orbital Transfer Vehicles.
SpaceX and Orbital are already receiving up to $500 million in federal funding under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. The COTS program aims to encourage the development of domestic spacecraft capable of sending cargo to the space station.
Funding for both companies comes through Space Act agreements with NASA. PlanetSpace has an unfunded Space Act agreement for cooperation with the agency.
But no money is attached to the CRS contract itself, which is called an indefinite delivery indefinite quantity, or IDIQ, contract. Specific funding levels will come in individual task orders, which NASA could reveal Tuesday or hold until next year.
"It's an on-ramp to a $3 billion kitty," said Max Vozoff, SpaceX's Dragon product manager.
Vozoff said he felt "very positive" about Tuesday's announcement.
The milestone-based task orders hold the real meat of the awards, according to Antonio Elias, executive vice president and general manager for advanced programs at Orbital.
"More important is what kind of initial task orders come with the contract itself," Elias said. "My hope is that the initial contract comes with about three orders for three flights. That would make us very happy."
PlanetSpace assembles aerospace 'dream team'
PlanetSpace has partnership agreements with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Alliant Techsystems Inc., or ATK. Boeing and Lockheed Martin will work together on designing and building Orbital Transfer Vehicles to ferry cargo to and from the space station.
"We bring significant expertise in program management, autonomous spacecraft design, manufacturing, systems integration and missions operations for this vital mission to maximize the role of the space station.
The two aerospace giants already work together operating the space shuttle fleet and launching Atlas and Delta rockets. Boeing is also NASA's lead contractor for the international space station.
"This CRS contract is an important part of ensuring the long-term viability and value of the ISS," said Brewster Shaw, vice president and general manager of Boeing's space exploration division.
Such experience will be applied to fielding a new spacecraft to service the space station, said Chirinjeev Kathuria, chairman of Chicago-based PlanetSpace.
ATK is offering to provide an Athena 3 rocket to propel the cargo carrier into orbit. The launcher, still in early development by ATK, will use a scaled-down two-and-a-half segment version of the space shuttle's solid rocket booster for the first stage.
The Athena 3 will also use the Castor 120 solid motor used on earlier Taurus and Athena rockets. ATK is developing a new Castor 30 motor for the third stage and capping the rocket with a module designed to put the cargo carrier on course for the space station.
"By using existing hardware that is U.S.-built and has demonstrated performances, we shorten the development timeline," said Kent Rominger, vice president of advanced programs for ATK's launch systems division.
PlanetSpace partnered with Space Florida, a government-chartered public-private organization charged with promoting the state's aerospace industry. Space Florida will lease Complex 36 to ATK for Athena 3 launches.
The consortium expects to create up to 350 new jobs and inject more than $300 million into the local economy, if their proposal is selected, according to PlanetSpace officials.
The first launch is scheduled for 2010.
Kathuria declined to comment on other specifics before Tuesday's award, but he lauded PlanetSpace's industry-wide team for their work so far.
"This team brings together technical innovations leveraging more than 50 years of relevant experience using flight-qualified U.S.-built space shuttle solid rocket motors, Athena launch vehicles, proven space vehicle technology and on-orbit operations," Kathuria said in an October written statement.
Much of PlanetSpace's team was assembled in February, when NASA selected an Orbital Sciences-led team over the consortium in the second round of its COTS solicitations.
But the agency has repeatedly said participation in the COTS program will have no bearing on CRS contract awards.
"This is a full and open competition separate from the COTS Phase 1 activities," NASA representatives said in a written response to industry questions.
"Mission suitability will be more important than cost," NASA officials wrote. "NASA will evaluate the proposals and based on the best value to NASA will award a basic contract and task orders."
Orbital Sciences looks overseas
The Orbital Sciences bid includes a new rocket and spacecraft being designed by company engineers.
The Taurus 2 rocket will be a two-stage rocket capable of sending about 11,500 pounds to the space station's orbit.
"It is built on the same tooling, which means the diameter is similar," Elias said. "But at that point, the similarity breaks because the propellant flow rate and the total amount of propellant is about half that of Zenit. So it is a very shortened version of those tanks and the actual plumbing is smaller in size and diameter."
Officials chose to collaborate with the makers of Zenit because of the Taurus 2's size and Orbital's limited experience in liquid-fueled rockets. The 133-foot-tall rocket is three times more powerful than anything Orbital has done before, Elias said.
Orbital is the builder of the air-launched Pegasus rocket, the Minotaur family, the original Taurus satellite launcher and a fleet of suborbital missiles used by the U.S. military. All of the rockets in the company's present stable are solid-fueled.
Orbital will use a Castor 30 motor for the Taurus 2 rocket's second stage. A low-thrust "orbit-raising kit" could be added for additional performance but likely won't be needed to reach the space station.
Two AJ26 engines, fueled by a mixture of rocket-grade kerosene and liquid oxygen, will be bolted to the bottom of first stage of the 12.8-foot diameter rocket.
The AJ26 engines were built in Russia for the N-1 moon rocket program in the 1970s. The machines were named the NK-33 in Russia.
The NK-33 engine was developed as a second-generation engine for the mega-rocket after the launcher suffered a series of failures in early test flights. The upgraded N-1 booster would have used several dozen of the new engines, but the program was cancelled before it ever flew again.
Aerojet, a division of GenCorp Inc., began importing the engines in the 1990s for their proposal to use the power plants on the first stage of the Atlas 5 rocket. Aerojet conducted several ground test firings of the engine beginning in 1995, but the Atlas 5 engine contract eventually went to another Russian engine - the RD-180 imported by Pratt & Whitney.
Elias said Aerojet eventually brought about half of the more than 60 NK-33 engines to their facility in Sacramento, Calif. The engines were renamed the AJ26 by Aerojet.
The other half are stored at a factory in Samara, Russia, Elias said. Between the two stockpiles, enough engines exist for at least 30 Taurus 2 missions.
Orbital chose the engines because "they're there and they're available," Elias said.
The efficient engines produce about 385,000 pounds of thrust at the highest throttle settings, according to Aerojet.
Orbital and Aerojet will begin acceptance tests for the engine next summer at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
"Several of these engines have been on the shelf for quite some time and we want to do a limited duration (firing) of each of the engines before we bolt them on the rocket," Elias said.
Rocketplane Kistler, a small Oklahoma-based company, planned to use the AJ26 engines for their K-1 reusable launch vehicle. Kistler was a recipient of COTS funding in the first round of the program, but NASA revoked the contract in 2007 after the company failed to meet private financing deadlines.
Orbital's COTS bid replaced Kistler during a second round of solicitations. The company will receive a total of up to $170 million to help pay for the development of Taurus 2 and Cygnus, a space tug that will shepherd cargo once in orbit.
The Cygnus spacecraft will initially be able to ferry up to 4,400 pounds of supplies to the station. Upgrades could push the cargo capacity to nearly 6,000 pounds, Elias said.
Orbital teamed up with Thales Alenia Space to build cargo modules for the Cygnus vehicle. The pressurized carriers will be built in Italy and based on the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, a reusable supply hauler transported to the station by the space shuttle.
"It is going to be designed and manufactured using the same kind of techniques that they use for space station modules," Elias said.
Although Orbital's first cargo delivery mission is not scheduled for launch until the end of 2010, engineers are steadily moving through design work for both the rocket and the spacecraft.
Elias said the team is "just shy" of the full critical design review for the Taurus 2. The critical design reviews for the launcher's avionics package and upper stage have been completed, but engineers are still several months away from similar reviews of the first stage and ground systems.
The critical design review for the Cygnus service module is scheduled for the spring. Officials have already started procurement for long-lead items such as flight computers and placed orders for fuel tanks and other elements, Elias said.
Work is also underway at the Taurus 2's launch pad at Wallops Island, Va. The seaside launch center is located on the Delmarva Peninsula.
The rocket will use the northernmost complex owned by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, or MARS. The 0A pad, which was home to the ill-fated Conestoga rocket in the 1990s, was demolished earlier this year.
"A structure will be built in its place, which elevates the pad itself, and a ramp will be constructed to allow the Taurus 2 transporter-erector to climb up the pad and erect the vehicle in position," Elias said.
The pad work is driven by Orbital's technical requirements, but construction is being paid for by public funding from the Commonwealth of Virginia. MARS will own the new launch pad and lease it to Orbital.
"It's very similar to building an office building where you spec it for your own use and somebody else builds and funds it and you rent it from them," Elias said.
The pad's size will "essentially double," Elias said.
Orbital is also building a large vehicle assembly building about one-and-a-half miles north of pad 0A. But workers must finish dirt work before the pace of construction can increase.
"The island is very low and the site has to be elevated to the minimum regulatory level before the foundation can be poured. So it's going to take several months of bulldozing and earthmoving before the first concrete is poured," Elias said.
The work is expected to be finished in time for the arrival of the first Taurus 2 pathfinder unit at Wallops in the early summer of 2010.
The rocket will be integrated horizontally in the vehicle assembly building and towed to the launch site. The transporter-erector will lift the vehicle to a vertical position, and the erector will remain attached to the rocket during the countdown to act as a servicing mast.
Engineers hope to eventually refine ground operations and only need one day between pad arrival and liftoff.
Orbital executives also envision employing the Taurus 2 in a variety of other missions.
"It was something that we felt we needed originally for our defense missions, which are all in this (medium-class) category," Elias said. "We were very concerned with the increased cost and eventual lack of availability of Delta 2, but we did not have an anchor customer."
The Air Force and NASA will soon be moving their medium-class launches from the Delta 2 to the larger Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets. Industry insiders fear the reduction in the Delta 2's flight rate will drive up launch costs and force United Launch Alliance, the rocket's operator, to abandon the respected Delta 2 line.
The Taurus 2 will attempt to capture some of the medium-class launch market left behind by the Delta 2. But launch demand forecasts have proven notoriously inaccurate over the past decade, so a strong program was needed to push the Taurus 2 concept into reality.
"What COTS initially provides, and then CRS afterwards, is that very, very important key anchor customer. If it weren't for COTS and CRS, we probably wouldn't have a good business case for starting the development," Elias said.
Between station resupply missions and other launches, Orbital expects to be able to complete at least 18 Taurus 2 missions between 2010 and 2015, according to internal predictions.
Those numbers will eventually depend on the CRS contract award and the availability of other payloads for the Taurus 2 manifest.
SpaceX could demonstrate early capabilities by summer
SpaceX's schedule calls for up to three demonstration flights of its Dragon spacecraft before any of its competitors get off the ground.
But that will be a tall order as the 560-person company works to simultaneously develop the Dragon, test its heavy-lifting Falcon 9 rocket and continue operations of the small Falcon 1 launcher.
The transporter-erector and launch mount have also been created and shipped from SpaceX's California headquarters to the launch site.
The Falcon 9's kerosene-fueled Merlin engine and propulsion avionics are nearing the end of their ground testing programs to qualify the equipment for flight, Vozoff said.
Last month, SpaceX completed a three-minute test firing of all nine engines on a first stage simulator fastened to a test stand in McGregor, Texas.
Engineers will spend the next several months readying the pad at Complex 40 and preparing the rocket for the first flight by spring. The Falcon 9's second mission in June will carry an early model of the Dragon capsule into space for a brief demo, assuming the first launch goes as planned.
"We just need to be able to have (a spacecraft) capable of doing three-and-a-half orbits and returning, which is still substantial but it's not all the subsystems and all the software that we need for the final version," Vozoff said. "It's not like we have to have the final version ready in June."
Technicians are already producing structural and avionics flight units for the first Dragon mission.
"We've already started bending metal," Vozoff said.
Subsequent Dragon flights in November 2009 and March 2010 will be bolder.
The second Dragon will approach the space station to test rendezvous sensors and the third flight is penciled in as the first mission to berth to the complex.
"We're tackling the essential stuff up front and then the spacecraft gets more complex with the second and then the third flight," Vozoff said.
SpaceX recently completed the critical design reviews for the second and third Dragon flights. Officials are awaiting a ruling from NASA on whether the company passed the reviews.
The reviews would mark the 13th COTS milestone the company has met so far. The program includes a total of 22 intermediate objectives defined by NASA.
The milestone's passage would give SpaceX another influx of funding, putting the company past the $230 million mark out of a package that was worth a maximum of $278 million, Vozoff said.
"It's a major, major milestone, almost certainly the biggest technical design review in the whole COTS program for us," Vozoff said. "We are very optimistic that we're going to hear any day that we have passed that review."
SpaceX announced last month a new initiative to use the Dragon as a host spacecraft for experiments in microgravity.
The new project, called DragonLab, would give customers access to space aboard the capsule for experiments to be launched into space and returned back to Earth at the end of dedicated free-flying science missions.
Vozoff said the company discussed the new program with NASA, the Department of Defense and commercial companies. The positive response convinced SpaceX to hold a user's conference in early November to introduce the idea to potential customers.
"We promoted it for really just a few weeks and then held a user's conference, which was packed to the limit of what the fire codes allow us to fit in the room. We were actually turning people away for a week beforehand," Vozoff said.
Another conference is scheduled for next year, but SpaceX has already added two DragonLab missions to the Falcon 9's launch manifest in 2010 and 2011.
The shuttle's retirement will leave American scientists with no options for experiments requiring a quick return of specimens from space.
Russia's Foton returnable spacecraft carries a smaller payload than DragonLab, and most spots are limited to Russian and European scientists.
"There are whole industries and fields of research that depend on microgravity and getting samples back, and Dragon is coming along as a godsend at a very opportune time," Vozoff said.
But first SpaceX faces a critical series of launches next year to see what their Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket are made of.