Tomorrow morning at 4:55 am EDT (May 19), SpaceX will attempt to launch its Falcon 9 booster, carrying the Dragon cargo capsule, to the ISS. SpaceX built the Falcon 9 and Dragon as part of NASA’s commercial orbital transportation services (COTS) program, combining private and NASA/taxpayer funds to supply the Station after shuttle retirement.
SpaceX has received about $400 million for the test launches, and has a contract worth $1.6 billion for 12 cargo shipments to the ISS. Founded in 2002, Elon Musk’s company has flown its Falcon 9 to orbit twice, and its Dragon capsule once. On that Dec. 2010 orbital mission, Dragon became the first private spacecraft in history launched to and recovered from orbit.
This mission will combine two previously planned missions, a Dragon orbital test with an approach to ISS, and a second mission to berth with ISS and deliver a demonstration cargo shipment. Tomorrow’s 2-week flight will try to test Dragon in orbit and also berth with ISS. On this flight, Dragon will for the first time:
— Deploy solar panels for power (instead of using batteries)
— Employ rocket thrusters for maneuvering, and guidance software to fly formation with ISS
— Be grappled by the ISS crew and berthed to the Earth-facing (nadir) hatch in the Harmony module (Node 2) at the forward end of the ISS.
If all goes well, on Tuesday, May 22 (Flight Day 4), the SpaceX team will attempt its close approach to the Station, followed by grapple operations and berthing. Dragon will stay at the ISS for about nine days, deliver its cargo, be loaded with trash and returning science hardware, and then be unberthed for departure. Following a retro-rocket burn, Dragon will re-enter the atmosphere, deploy parachutes, and splash down off the California coast for recovery.
Importance for NASA
SpaceX’s launch is the first cargo delivery to the ISS under NASA’s commercial services contract. NASA needs SpaceX and its other commercial partner, Orbital Sciences (whose first test launch may come in August) to succeed. NASA will rely on these companies in order to deliver cargo once launched by the space shuttle. Cargo launches by Russia, Europe, and Japan cannot make up the demand if these private companies do not succeed.
So overall commercial launch success is vital to NASA’s attempt to lower costs, escape the Russian cargo monopoly, and fill ISS cargo demands after shuttle retirement (some 40 metric tons through 2015).
SpaceX is nearly 3 years behind schedule on delivery of cargo to ISS (as is Orbital), as the companies have wrestled with everything from new rocket designs to delays in launch pad construction. This is a tough mission: Dragon has not flown as a maneuvering spacecraft, where it will exercise its navigation software, proximity operations sensors, thrusters, and solar power systems, all needed to reach the ISS. Most critically, the guidance and navigation software must perform flawlessly to enable formation flying within 30 feet of ISS; software checkout has caused months of delays, and in no case must Dragon endanger crew safety or the safety of ISS.
If it can approach safely, my colleagues Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers will reach out with the ISS robot arm and grab Dragon. Berthing via the robot arm will follow, followed by leak checks, hatch opening, and cargo transfer.
Most experts think Falcon 9 will launch successfully and put Dragon in orbit, but that Dragon may not achieve berthing with ISS. I rate the odds about 50/50 on an actual berthing with the Station.
Implications of failure
Success on the Dragon mission will make NASA’s commercial cargo strategy look like a good choice, with progress being made toward buying cargo services routinely. Success will also burnish the follow-on plan to send astronauts to ISS on commercial ships, around 2017. If Dragon launches on Falcon 9, but does not make it to ISS, SpaceX will claim that they at least accomplished the original first test flight objectives. They can then fly a second mission (as originally planned) to achieve rendezvous and berthing, after fixing any shortcomings.
Of course, it’s the nature of the space business that a failure always helps pave the road to eventual success. NASA and SpaceX can claim that “we learned from the test” – and they will go ahead with the next test launch as soon as possible. But a failure will anger a Congress very skeptical of the commercial crew launch approach, even as it recognizes the need for commercial cargo services.
If SpaceX suffers a spectacular failure, (and I’m rooting for success), you’ll see calls for NASA to reshape its plans for commercial astronaut launches. Congress the past couple of years has appropriated only half the funds requested by White House for commercial astronaut launches. A Dragon failure may cause legislators to reduce NASA’s private astronaut launch funding even further. Without those funds, NASA’s 2017 date for commercial astronaut launches will slip further. Congress instead may force NASA to choose a proven satellite booster (Delta IV or Atlas V) and one commercial space capsule to restore astronaut access to Earth orbit as soon as possible.
Already, we are waiting far too long to restore our ability to get our people to the ISS. It will take much more than Dragon success to correct the fix we are in in terms of providing vital space access. We’ve lost three years as NASA’s commercial program has lagged. It will cost more, but I think NASA itself should quickly build a rocket/capsule system to restore our access to ISS. We are risking our $100 billion investment in the Space Station as we go year after year without a domestic rocket to get our crews up there, all the while paying the Russians $55M+ per seat (going to $63 million soon). When the commercial firms are ready, they should replace the NASA interim system. This dual-track approach costs more, but recognizes the risk to our Space Station operations posed by exclusive Russian access. Prudent leaders will increase the NASA budget to quickly restore our own launch capability. This might cost us 0.6% of the federal budget, rather than 0.5%. We can afford that investment. I don’t think we can afford the risk of not doing so.
I wish NASA success on the cargo launch, because my colleagues and friends working on the ISS need the supplies – and so we can stop paying the Russians, too. My estimate is that Dragon will not make it all the way to ISS on this first attempt. I hope SpaceX scores a big success, but what they are trying is truly “rocket science.”
One measure of how hard this rendezvous and berthing job is comes from shuttle experience. We never failed to dock the shuttle at Mir or ISS, but it took humans at the controls to achieve that record. Mission Control can help, but in the end Dragon’s computers have to come close to human piloting skills, and that’s a lot to ask on a first attempt.
I cannot imagine how NASA could put together an interim booster/capsule system that would launch any sooner than a crewed Dragon (assuming you’re talking crew access only), no matter what the budget. Orion on Delta IV? This would still involve a NASA/commercial partnership, it would bring back the enormous overhead costs of traditional aerospace and NASA management, and would require quick and near-perfect political alignment and action.
An explanation of how NASA could accomplish this would be much appreciated.
Under the current budget, no, it can’t happen any sooner. But we launched John Glenn in 1962 after founding NASA in late 1958 — a little over three years. If it’s a priority to put our nation quickly back into the LEO rocketry arena, we could do this. It’s a policy decision. The engineering would follow. Yes, it costs more. So does the loss of access to the ISS and the dispersal of our human spaceflight work force.
I understand that it can be done–in a world where things work as they’re supposed to. The disparity in contract-to-flight times between the 50s/early 60s and today is indeed amazing, and maddening–can you imagine today’s Lockheed fielding the A-12 anywhere near the time it took in the early 60s? And those guys used pencils and slide rules. They were heroes.
What I’m talking about isn’t techological capability in a can-do land where everyone’s Kelly Johnson and James Webb. It’s results in the real world of Congress, NASA and the big old aerospace contractors, in a time when the nation is crippled by political divisiveness and economic stagnation, and fielding a fighter plane doesn’t take two years–it takes two decades. Simply *deciding on a plan* in this world will take years, nevermind funding that plan, and nevermind that Congress is hell-bent on burning billions of dollars on a rocket that has no conceivable utility for ISS crew or cargo–a rocket which, in fact, won’t fly until the 2020s at the earliest–while simultaneously cutting funding for the only program likely to help in the near term.
How, in this world where black is white, up is down and dogs and cats are living together, could NASA possibly do any better than by pushing commercial crew? If NASA goes to an internal “interim” booster/capsule combination, it can only do so by moving back to a traditional cost-plus contract, with a rapid down-select to a single set of old-guard contractors (basically, Boeing and Lockheed). The inevitable result–and after so many shining examples in NASA’s booster development history since 1981, how can anyone doubt it–will be multi-billion-dollar overruns and multi-year program delays, leading to a crew capability that costs >$1B/flight. It will also result in our crawling back to Russia for two to three years when a flight goes bad and we have no dissimilar system to fall back on.
ray gabe (@rayagabe) says
We share the great desire for a successful SpaceX Falcon/Dragon mission. All the best and much appreciation to all those making this possible! Looking forward to Dragon’s successful rendezvous/berthing (by Don Pettit’s steady hand), re-entry, and splashdown next week.
Having said that, this “is what it is” – very much a TEST like ANY other early NASA program/mission. Concerning cost overruns and delays. I’m afraid that whether it’s NASA using in-house engineers and managing outside contractors OR “subbing out” the whole project, the laws of physics/science/engineering, large-scale (NEVER-done-before) project management, and human nature ALL remain constant. While I believe there’s a “special magic” among those @ NASA and their tremendous accomplishment over many years, this does not preclude private companies from delivering awesome solutions. However, the fact remains that private companies will face the SAME challenges (technical and otherwise) as does NASA while each have their own idiosyncrasies – not better or worse, just different.
In the final analysis, while financial cost does “matter”, keeping the relative cost in perspective, minimizing politics, avoiding the “my science is better than your science” argument, and by objectively evaluating the TRUE worth of these (“not only because they are easy, but because they are hard”) endeavors, can we then hope to maintain our leadership position and achieve further greatness in space exploration. I fear too many of our current leaders in Washington DC may not truly share these essential, fundamental goals – in spite of their statements which seem to play well.
Otherwise, happy to see the Soyuz crew safely docked to ISS on Thurs. and God speed for safe return of Expedition 31.
Thanks as always to Dr. Tom for this informative, well-rounded, and realistic article – putting it all in proper perspective.
I suspect I’ll stay up late for the launch. God Speed!
A slightly different perspective on the SpaceX (“test”) launch which quotes Tom Jones and references his article.
Catch the launch – LIVE! (5/19 3:30/4:15 AM ET)
Tom, what you are advocating, is fiscally irresponsible. You suggest we spend nine to twelve billion dollars for a system that will only fly for a few years, and then be cancelled. And you provide absolutely nothing suggesting how this would be done. As someone advocating for NASA, you should know this is why some people can’t take the agency seriously anymore. At that cost, it simply is not a national priority. Considering that NASA’s budget is already lower than when the Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Comittee suggested a three billion dollar increase, it is also unrealistic to expect a roughly three billion dollar increase now.
If you are really concerned with shortening the gap, then you should advocate for full funding of the commercial crew program. This would cost less than one-sixth of what you propose, would measurably quicken the pace, and would leave us at the end with cost-effective usable systems. The public wouldn’t be asking why you spent roughly ten billion dollars on something just to cancel it. And we would finally have redundant United States access to LEO.
I say the national priority is advocating national ideas, like capitalism, and competition. Commercial crew does that.
“Congress the past couple of years has appropriated only half the funds requested by White House for commercial astronaut launches. A Dragon failure may cause legislators to reduce NASA’s private astronaut launch funding even further. Without those funds, NASA’s 2017 date for commercial astronaut launches will slip further. Congress instead may force NASA to choose a proven satellite booster (Delta IV or Atlas V) and one commercial space capsule to restore astronaut access to Earth orbit as soon as possible.”
Instead though, of suggesting a $500 million increase to fully cover a commercial crew program, you suggest a $3 billion increase for a NASA system. Why?
“Already, we are waiting far too long to restore our ability to get our people to the ISS. It will take much more than Dragon success to correct the fix we are in in terms of providing vital space access. We’ve lost three years as NASA’s commercial program has lagged. It will cost more, but I think NASA itself should quickly build a rocket/capsule system to restore our access to ISS.”
NASA already tried building a rocket/capsule system itself. At the time Ares 1 was cancelled, it was already at least 4 years behind schedule. And even now, Orion is at least 2 years behind schedule. How are those delays better/different than the commercial delays? Assuming NASA can, with $3 billion a year, field an LEO system before commercial, how quickly can they do it?
And, finally, if NASA were fielding it’s own LEO system, why would Congress continue funding commercial crew, or another round of CRS contracts?
Thanks for your comment, Jason _____.
The funds required to restore US access to LEO should have been spent over the past 6 years. The extended risk to the $100B ISS justifies securing this access via a domestic solution as soon as possible. I don’t accept the premise that the US can only afford $18 B for space exploration and operations, so if my policy were implemented, I’d have ample budget to carry the interim system, which could then be competed against commercial booster/spacecraft combinations to secure future savings.
The neglect of our LEO access needs over the past six years has been a wrong-headed policy. The nation needs this launch capability restored, and I don’t want to wait until 2017, the earliest date that NASA promises. This is not good enough for a nation that wants to lead in space. Having tried it on the cheap since 2004, and with the costs of the lagging current program all too evident, it will now cost us more to move that date forward.
The 0.6% of federal spending option I’d allocate to NASA can also move us more quickly into deep space, which should be NASA’s true priority. But providing prompt LEO access is a near-term priority that can be ignored no longer.
Mike Wise says
So if the Russians are charging 63 million USD per seat, and Falcon 9 can carry 7 Astronauts, any idea what SpaceX will have to charge per seat?
I am guesssing they will not be able to better their current 133 million per shot, which would imply about a 20 million USD per seat.
I think the Shuttle came in around 64 million USD per seat (450 per flight / 7seats) – however add in the lifetime Shuttle costs and you have about 3 times that (so 192 mllion USD per seat).
We still have a long way to go before it is something an average person could do even once in a lifetime.
Absolutely. But it’s a start. In a half century of government-only human spaceflight, you could not buy a ticket at ANY price. Now you can.
That’s why the idea of a competition-destroying internal NASA HSF capability is so wrong–it will put us right back at the status quo, where only a select few civil servants have even a chance of going into space.
Mike Wise says
Well, SpaceX is doing a good job – no a great job – so far. Let’s just hope that working so closely with NASA won’t corrupt them (why build somthing for 50 million when you can charge 500 million). It is hard to not be cynical.
I’ve shared that cynicism in the past, and it’s always possible that things will go off the rails. But this flight is a turning point, game changer, paradigm shifter, choose your cliche, such that SpaceX might just change NASA (and the entire space industry, and the politics of the space industry) more than NASA changes SpaceX. Don Pettit was right when he said one flight doesn’t prove the viability of commercial space, but one flight CAN change the way people view commercial space. I’m pretty sure that’s already happened in a very big way.
Mike Wise says
Could be. But there is still no where to go in space, and 20 million per round trip per head is not going to attract many people even if Bigelow gets his blow-up hotels up there.
We need further cost competition and reduction – that pretty much leaves the Cygnus folks who are rather behind and don’t have as capable a solution. Boeing is the other serious contender but they are part of the old guard and have little interest in changing how the game works. The Europeans have never shown desire to do anything with manned spacecraft and anyway are just as bad with porky cost overruns as our government. I think this is true of all governments really – the price of democracy is that everything gets turned into a jobs program.
The only really interesting prospect that I see is SpaceX’s recently publicized proposal to make all the stages reusable. But I am guessing that is 10-15 years out (discounting their predictions by the rates they have shown in the past) and it might not even work. I kind of think some autorotation scheme would be a better bet than a powered decent, but they are the rocket scientists – not me 🙂
Excellent article for Popular Mechanics, Dr. Jones.