What private manned spaceship will NASA pick?

Speculation grows on the upcoming down-select decision by NASA of its manned commercial space program.

Next up is the announcement of the transition to the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts, to be announced later this month, or early in September, depending on political direction. Although the source selection process is obviously an internal debate, with its results embargoed until the time of the NASA announcement, it is hoped that two of the commercial crew providers will move forward with additional funding.

At the ASAP meeting, Ms. Lueders expressed “NASA’s desire to continue the partnerships even after the announcement, including with companies not selected.” That continued association may be in the form of unfunded Space Act Agreements (SAA), not unlike that which Blue Origin is currently working under, as it develops a crew capsule outside of the trio working with CCiCAP funding. “People are recognizing the value of competition and have an appreciation for shared knowledge,” added Ms. Lueders. “NASA has learned from the companies and the companies have learned from NASA. It would be a big plus to continue the relationships.”

As to which companies are likely to win through to the CCtCap phase, that is a tightly kept secret. However, over recent months, sources have noted NASA’s strong affection toward the multi-capable Dream Chaser, while SpaceX has a growing track record with its Falcon 9 and cargo-Dragon combinations via its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) missions. [emphasis mine]

My sense in the last few months has also leaned heavily in favor of Dragon and Dream Chaser, both of whom appear to be moving forward with construction at a fast pace. Boeing meanwhile has instead made it seem that it wishes to invest as little capital in its project as possible, unless it wins the competition. While the first two companies have unveiled real hardware, Boeing continues to show us mostly mock-ups.

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21 comments

  • Kelly Starks

    I find this confusing. Dream Chaser and SpaceX are way behind Boeing in reaching its milestones. They were given 6 month extensions since neither has gotten even near what was needed and agreed to for the Sep delivery date and subsequent down select (were still thrashing around some basic design issues, so it will be some time before we will have a configuration to design to). Boeing on the other hand finished last year. Boeing also was developing to the highest standards.

    So how can NASA even consider the Dream Chaser and Dragons when both are so far away from even finishing the vehicle designs? They are about as far as when NASA launched their “Ares-1X” or whatever, that was little more then a mock up with a shuttle SRB that had nothing comparable to the Actual Ares-1 in it. So really unless you were just going to go with Boeing, theres nothing else far enough along to review?

    • wodun

      “Dream Chaser and SpaceX are way behind Boeing in reaching its milestones.”

      The companies do not have to meet the same milestones.

      “So how can NASA even consider the Dream Chaser and Dragons when both are so far away from even finishing the vehicle designs?”

      Dream Chaser has a full scale prototype doing drop tests. It will also be capable of many more different mission types than either the CST 100 or Dragon crew.

      The Dream Chaser is very impressive so far and so is the Dragon. They might not be finished with their designs but you can sit inside them, unlike the CST 100.

      I want to say that the individual Dream Chaser being tested may actually be launched but I can’t remember for sure.

      In any case, you might enjoy this Space Show program from a few weeks ago. It is two interviews, one with Larry Price on Orion’s development and one with Mark Sirangelo on how Dream Chaser is coming along. http://www.thespaceshow.com/detail.asp?q=2293

      • Kelly Starks

        >> “Dream Chaser and SpaceX are way behind Boeing in reaching its milestones.”

        > The companies do not have to meet the same milestones.

        But one made the agreed to milestones 9 months arly, the others need another 6 months? I’ld see that as a reason to wait?

        >> “So how can NASA even consider the Dream Chaser and Dragons when both are so far away from even
        >> finishing the vehicle designs?”

        > Dream Chaser has a full scale prototype doing drop tests…

        Its not a real prototype anymore then Enterprize was a full up orbiter, or Ares-IX a real ares booster prototype.

    • Dick Eagleson

      As others have noted here, each company in Commercial Crew negotiated its own set of milestones with NASA. Boeing’s milestones are, indeed, mostly design reviews and other paper shuffling exercises so dear to Kelly’s heart. So far as I know, they not only don’t have to do any abort tests, other than a ground test of the thruster engine that will be used – not installed in an actual vehicle – they don’t even have to actually build a CST-100 until very late in the game. That probably explains why Boeing has contributed virtually no company funds to the project thus far. Even the drop tests they’ve done of parachutes and airbags were done with boilerplate test articles built by subcontractors. Boeing has no production facility fitted out yet either.

      SpaceX, as noted, is already building Dragon V2’s in Hawthorne. SNC built its engineering test article quite some time ago and is upgrading it along with making repairs necessitated by its off-runway excursion during last year’s glide test. More tests are to follow this Fall at Edwards AFB. SNC is also having LockMart assemble a pair of orbit-capable Dream Chasers at their Michoud plant.

      Boeing is the furthest from being able to field an actual vehicle despite having the most conservative and least-capable design and using a ton of legacy components.

      • Kelly Starks

        SpaceX, SNC Boeing, and NASA completely disagree with you. As a mater of fact Boeing being so far ahead is kinda discouraging Dream Chaser folks around here.

  • Kelly Starks

    > “SNC has also baselined a new propulsion system design (a pure liquid system design rather than a hybrid)
    > in conjunction with their purchase of ORBITEC.”

    ???

    Not that we in Orbitec have heard? They need to, Orbitec desperately wants to get the nod for that rather then just then new RCS jets, but if they got that – they would be shooting it down the halls!

    • Tom Billings

      So, Kelly, …you work at Orbitec? I suppose the engines then would be the nice Vortex-cooled jobs that finally got flown? IIRC, you guys now have, or are negotiating for, a contract to build, a larger Vortex-cooled engine, …am I right? Perhaps that is what the author heard about, and assumed was the reason for the purchase of Orbitec, …….hmmmmmm!

      I heard about the Vortex-cooled engine back in 2008, but I couldn’t get anyone at Orbitec to respond to an e-mail about building a model of one in the virtual world of Second Life. I went ahead and built something from the description in Orbitec’s releases and webpages, but I’ve never known if I got it right. It’s always troubled me to possibly be taking you guy’s name in vain with a display on NSS Island in Second Life. So, its not on display right now, …but could be.

      Seeing Vortex-cooled engines on operating commercial vehicles would be fabulous!

      • Kelly Starks

        > So, Kelly, …you work at Orbitec? ..

        I do this year. ;) I’m on their systems engineering team doing life support and thermal control systems.

        >.. I suppose the engines then would be the nice Vortex-cooled jobs that finally got flown? IIRC,
        > you guys now have, or are negotiating for, a contract to build, a larger Vortex-cooled engine, …am I right?
        > Perhaps that is what the author heard about, and assumed was the reason for the purchase of Orbitec,
        > …….hmmmmmm!

        Can’t answer in detail, but they have several liquid, solid, and hybrid engines they have built or developed – and SNC really likes their work on the Dream Chasers ECLSS and TCS, and sees a huge potential for rocket engines sales with everything from the RL-10’s to RD-180’s buyers looking around for potential other options (orbitec and Aerojet are the only remaining rocket engines vendors left.)

        I’m told the Vortex engines has proven relyable, scaleable, and very fuel flexible with very good fuel mixing — and needs no cooling systems. So its a sweet little design. Their a long way from building anything in the RD-180 class, but they rae really excited about the next several years growth potential.

        >..It’s always troubled me to possibly be taking you guy’s name in vain with a display on NSS Island in Second Life.
        > So, its not on display right now, …but could be.

        ;)

        > Seeing Vortex-cooled engines on operating commercial vehicles would be fabulous!

        They would easily agree with you here. ;)

  • Steve C

    Don’t see how Boeing is ahead of anything except maybe paperwork. SpaceX has a craft that has proven itself capable to reaching orbit and back. In a crunch, you could mount some couches, toss in some space suits and do a “Man in a Can” recovery of astronauts now. Dream Chaser is not as far along, but they are bending metal and making tests. Boeing has pretty pictures and press releases. I am not convinced that Boeing is spending more for project development than they are for lobbying.

  • Doug

    SpaceX has shown a fully functional (not a mock up) version of a manned Dragon. As far as I can see all of Boeing’s “milestones” have been software tests and design reviews. They have yet to build or fly ANYTHING.

    As Elon Musk has stated, if they were held to the same safety standards as the first shuttle flight, they could fly men tomorrow.

    From looking at the milestones for SpaceX, once they complete their milestones, they will be ready for a full orbital unmanned test flight, if not a manned one.

    The only reason Boeing was paid more was because they need more money and they lobby better. As a matter of fact, Boeing has stated that if they lose in the down-select, they will not continue on with the CST.

    • wodun

      There have been some drop tests of the CST 100.

      • Steve C

        So they have successfully dropped a dead weight by parachute. They could have done that with a pallet of MRE’s.

        • geoffc

          SpaceX has tested their parachute system 5 times on real missions now. They have tested their heat shield design 5 times on real missions now. They have tested the accuracy of their model for flying a capsule.

          In order to validate their abort mode, they have tested even faster parachute deployment via mortars. Hard to say how a CST-100 drop test comes close to those milestones.

          SpaceX is making real progress, with real hardware, parts of which are actively launching. (Won’t compare Falcon to Atlas, since both are launching regularly now).

    • Kelly Starks

      > As Elon Musk has stated, if they were held to the same safety standards as the first shuttle flight, they could fly men tomorrow.

      Shuttle was built to far higher standards, by far more experience people, and demonstrated far higher safty and reliability then SpaceX and its craft… so most find Musk’s statement..debatable.

      >== The only reason Boeing was paid more was because they need more money and they lobby better…

      Or that they delivered are far more solid proposal.

      >…Boeing has stated that if they lose in the down-select, they will not continue on with the CST.

      Practical of them. Theres not enough potential market to justify the program to stock holders otherwise.

      • Art

        “Practical of them. Theres not enough potential market to justify the program to stock holders otherwise.”

        Which is the reason not one of the legacy aerospace companies had built any capsules without gov money. Come on!! Boeing could have said that it was mass producing capsules for rent or sale to private companies & foreign friendly governments 15 or twenty years ago. They would’ve cornered the market & be launching NASA crews by now. But no one wanted to risk the status quo until Musk & SpaceX came along. Now Boeing has the least innovative capsule, designed to eat up as much of NASA’s funding as possible to preserve the status quo & keep other’s out. No risk = no innovation. Only Musk has risked it all with his personal fortune & SNC has been forced to seek other potential customers. Sure, NASA bailed Musk out, but, NASA knew a good deal when they saw it.

        • Edward

          “Sure, NASA bailed Musk out, but, NASA knew a good deal when they saw it.”

          I disagree that this was a bailout. You said it yourself, Art: NASA bought at a good price something that it wanted. It was a sale of a desired service, not a bailout.

      • Art

        Which is the reason not one of the legacy aerospace companies had built any capsules without gov money. Come on!! Boeing could have said that it was mass producing capsules for rent or sale to private companies & foreign friendly governments 15 or twenty years ago. They would’ve cornered the market & be launching NASA crews by now. But no one wanted to risk the status quo until Musk & SpaceX came along. Now Boeing has the least innovative capsule, designed to eat up as much of NASA’s funding as possible to preserve the status quo & keep other’s out. No risk = no innovation. Only Musk has risked it all with his personal fortune & SNC has been forced to seek other potential customers. Sure, NASA bailed Musk out, but, NASA knew a good deal when they saw it.

  • Tom Billings

    Hmmmm!

    http://www.parabolicarc.com/2014/08/19/snc-abandons-hybrid-motors-dream-chaser/

    Today I read in the comments of this article that it *will* be the Vortex-cooled engines, and the propellants will be nitrous/propane, according to Charles Lurio’s newsletter. Looks like good news for Kelly and his friends!

    • Kelly Starks

      Except SNC execs have stated they have made no such decision.

      …folks around here expect they will make (or if they made announce) such a decision. The Hybrids really are a problem for dream chaser. So far though…..

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