The state of the new commercial manned space efforts

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Chris Bergin at today wrote a report on the four companies NASA is subsidizing to build manned capsules. The status of each company tells us something of whether they can eventually provide the United States with a replacement for the shuttle, and do it soon. Let’s take a look at each.

Dream Chaser: Being built by Sierra Nevada, this reusable “baby shuttle”, launched on an Atlas rocket, is actually derived not from the shuttle design but from the lifting body research NASA performed in the early 1970s. At the moment plans call for the delivery of the first test prototype by December 2011. NASA will do a complete design review in May 2012. When the first test flights will occur remains unclear.

CST-100: This large scale Apollo-like capsule, being built by Boeing, will be capable of carrying up to seven astronauts. It has also been designed to launch on several different rockets, though the Atlas V is considered its primary carrier. In addition to providing NASA with crew ferrying capability, Boeing has an agreement with Bigelow Aerospace to provide ferrying service to its privately built space stations. A variety of drop tests and wind tunnel tests are presently going on, with a parachute test of the capsule set for the spring. The target date for actual operations is 2015.

Blue Origin: Relatively little is known about this capsule, funded and built by founder Jeff Bezos. It appears the plans are to also launch it on an Atlas V rocket, though the company appears intent on building its own reusable rocket.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9/Dragon capsule: In order to make this reusable cargo carrying capsule man-rated, SpaceX must install a launch abort system to be used during launch to get the capsule safely free from a failing rocket. It appears the first round of testing for this system should begin in the spring of 2012. Meanwhile, the second test flight of Dragon’s cargo capability, is set for late this year. That flight will test the capsule’s ability to rendezvous with ISS and if all goes well, possibly complete a berthing to the station using the station’s robot arm.

From what I can gather, only SpaceX is close to launch, with Boeing not far behind. Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is the most interesting concept, however. Though the design appears the most radical, its lifting body shape has already been tested in flight — in suborbital flights by the United States and orbital flights by the Soviet Union — and has been proved to work. If they can get this built, it could be the best privately built vehicle of all to get humans to and from orbit.

Under the present contract arrangements, these four companies are completely in charge of design and construction, with NASA engineers and managers only taking a consulting role. Sadly, there are indications that the upper management at NASA wish to change this arrangement in order to give NASA a greater supervisory role. If that happens, expect development on all four of these manned spaceships to slow significantly.



  • awesome , thanks for the info great post! i would like to see these efforts accelerated but realize the government wont be spending more money anytime soon probably, if individuals at NASA want more control of these projects they should resign and seek private sector employment at the company with the project they are interested in . maybe blue origin also has a secret marketing strategy that will surprise us!

  • “. . . if individuals at NASA want more control of these projects they should resign and seek private sector employment at the company with the project they are interested in .”

    That’s a very good idea in general. I suspect that the qualities that make for a good bureacrat (and we do need some) do not translate well to a private enterprise start-up in a high-risk environment.

  • Tom Billings

    While high-level NASA bureaucrats need little urging, I will be surprised if we do not see substantial portions of the origins of this desire, to shift from what has worked (SAA) to what has not(FARs), in the congressional allies of the MPCV/Orion program, and SLS. After all, since Orion was supposed to be a back-up for the commercial providers, those vehicles’ entry into delivery of humans to orbit might just mean that the money gushers into MSFC, JSC and KSC for MPCV and SLS programs comes to a halt. Canna ha’ that, now can we?

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