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NASA, Boeing, SpaceX closing in on return to human spaceflight

By
Paul Brinkmann
SpaceX's Starship stands against the night sky in Boca Chica, Texas. Photo courtesy of SpaceX
SpaceX's Starship stands against the night sky in Boca Chica, Texas. Photo courtesy of SpaceX

ORLANDO, Fla., Oct. 1 (UPI) -- America's public and private space endeavors may soon regain the nation's role as the global leader in human space exploration, but they are years behind schedule.

At stake is not only United States dominance, but also scientific advances to be gained from space exploration. More than $20 billion has been spent to develop new capsules -- NASA's Orion, SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's Starliner.

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Boeing and SpaceX are more than two years late in sending astronauts back to space from U.S. soil compared to their original contract schedules. They've dealt with delays caused by such problems as parachute failure and a capsule exploding during a test firing.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine publicly called out SpaceX for the delays in a statement Friday, a day before SpaceX founder Elon Musk showed off the company's next-generation spaceship, Starship. Musk said Saturday Starship will carry people into orbit by 2020.

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NASA's own SLS rocket and Orion capsule also have been delayed for years, having started in design phase under the Constellation program that was defunded in the 2011 federal budget. NASA has accelerated plans for returning to the moon, but there are no guarantees of funding to do that within a five-year window set by Vice President Mike Pence in March.

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The space agency and the two major space companies continue to make progress in their space travel programs, but have not set a date for launches with crews aboard.

"Certainly, it is harder than people realize," NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik told UPI. "We need to make sure it's safe to put people on [these capsules], and we can't fly until it's safe. There's also a point when you say we gotta go fly, and we've minimized the risk as much as we can."

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NASA, SpaceX and Boeing are followed closely by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic in space travel aspirations. Blue Origin is pursuing a 2024 moon landing goal, but hasn't tested its launch vehicle, the New Glenn rocket. Virgin has had success in its space tourism venture, having sent three people into suborbital space in a February launch of its spaceplane.

Space station access

Regardless of launching a moon mission by 2024, NASA's urgent need is to stop relying on Russian Soyuz rockets for U.S. astronauts -- at a cost of over $70 million per seat. That's the only way the United States has been able to send astronauts to the International Space Station since the space shuttle was mothballed in 2011.

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NASA awarded two finalist contracts in 2014 to certify new spacecraft to carry people by 2017 -- Boeing got $4.2 billion for its Starliner capsule and SpaceX got $2.6 billion for Crew Dragon.

A sobering report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office in June noted that both programs were making progress, but also said continued delays create "continued uncertainty about when either contractor will be certified to begin conducting operational missions to the ISS."

NASA acknowledged the uncertainty in February, when it announced plans to purchase two additional Soyuz seats from Russia.

Bresnik flew on the last shuttle to retrieve an astronaut from the space station in 2008. He later flew in Soyuz capsules for two missions to the station and served on an original design team for the Crew Dragon capsule.

The explosion of a Crew Dragon capsule on a launch pad during engine testing in April was a serious blow, he said.

"It was disappointing, to say the least," Bresnik said. "I mean, we really did not need that right now. We were supposed to have those commercial crew programs flying by now. These things need to fly, but they have to fly when they're ready."

Crewed missions, except for Virgin Galactic, are expected to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, though SpaceX's Starship could eventually launch from both Florida and Texas.

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New launch towers at the space center have been outfitted with astronaut access arms for Starliner, which is to ride atop a United Launch Alliance rocket, and Crew Dragon, designed for a Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX completed an uncrewed test launch and landing of Dragon, but that capsule is the one that exploded on the pad later. Months after the explosion, SpaceX blamed a leaky titanium valve and said it would fix the problem with a new type of valve.

ULA awaits Boeing's date for the first launch of Starliner. Boeing officials confirmed plans for an uncrewed test in 2019, possibly in October. But no further dates have been set for SpaceX or Boeing.

"The tower, the access arm, escape routes and even bathrooms for the astronauts at the top of the tower are ready," said Dane Drefke, a lead engineer for ULA.

Orion and Artemis

For the lunar missions, NASA remains in charge of the entire process. It has designed and tested the Orion capsule, built by Lockheed Martin, for deep-space exploration. Orion capsules are intended to fly up to a dozen missions named Artemis after the god Apollo's twin sister.

Lockheed has finished building the Orion capsule that will fly uncrewed in a test mission around the moon in mid-2020. Orion will launch atop NASA's massive new Space Launch System rocket. As of mid-September, NASA had joined together the last of five sections of the 212-foot-tall core stage for the rocket.

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"Orion is much larger in volume than the Apollo capsule, a full meter larger across the base, and allows four crew rather than three," said Michael Hawes, program manager for Orion at Lockheed. "They can dismantle portions of the seats, so they have a pretty large interior."

The capsule has a new lighter and more protective heat shield, far more computing power than Apollo or the space shuttle and advanced communications technology.

Lockheed's original Orion contract was for $12 billion. Hawes said the company is running slightly over budget. On Sept. 23, NASA ordered three more Orion spacecraft for Artemis missions III through V for $2.7 billion. The agency plans to order three additional Orion capsules in 2022 for Artemis missions VI through VIII at a total cost of $1.9 billion.

"We feel building space vehicles for the nation is part of our heritage and we appreciate the value the country gets in leadership, workforce and science and technology advancements," Hawes said.

Milestones reached

Delays aside, the space companies and NASA can point to significant progress and many milestones reached.

NASA successfully demonstrated its launch abort system for Orion in July, ensuring that the capsule can break free and land safely if the rocket has trouble.

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Boeing, NASA and the U.S. Army most recently completed dress rehearsals for recovery of the Starliner capsule after it lands at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Starliner is to be the first and only American-made orbital crew capsule that won't splash down in the ocean. It would land at one of five sites in the western United States, with two possibilities at White Sands. Crews practiced locating the capsule at night and implementing procedures to secure and cool it before unsealing the hatch.

Spacex and NASA have completed 30 drop tests and 18 system tests of the company's parachute system. NASA recently said those tests have resulted in a better system -- especially relating to balancing and packing the parachutes so they all open correctly.

In the meantime, private efforts to send people into deep space are emerging. Blue Origin's Bezos has shown off a moon lander, called Blue Moon, which is being developed. And SpaceX successfully tested its new Raptor engine in a 500-foot test flight of a prototype for its next generation rocket, Starship -- which would have its own built-in habitat for the crew.

Bresnik believes the United States is on the verge of a new golden age of spaceflight.

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"The fact that we now spend six months living in space routinely, and that we now consider reusability of rockets normal -- these things are amazing advances already," he said. "We've learned so much about staying in space for long periods, and it's really all building blocks for creating a surface habitat on the moon, and taking us to Mars."

He pointed out that no nation ever had more than one type of spacecraft that is capable of carrying people at any point in history.

"Hopefully, we will have three soon, and possibly more," Bresnik said. "To me, it's like the dawn of aviation when we had one or two people in airplanes at first, and then suddenly everyone was flying on airplanes."

Hawes said the new emphasis on returning to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars has helped.

"The increased focus and attention is a great motivator for our team at Lockheed," he said. "The lunar landing goal in 2024 helps give folks some urgency. We won't do anything crazy, but we are moving to get ready to fly."



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