Monday, October 1, 2012

And Then There Were Three: Pros & Cons of NASA's Space-Taxi Contenders

NASA's recent success at landing an SUV-sized Rover on Mars  masks a larger issue at hand:  the national, federally-funded agency has to rely on the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos to fly its astronauts to the International Space Station, at a rate of  $63 million per head (that's taxpayer money, if need be reminded). 

Consequently everyone is paying attention to NASA's current Commercial Crew Development program (CCDev) now transitioning to the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability program (CCiCAP) which they hope will find the right private company that would be able to take over full transportation duties.  The race to supply NASA's "space taxis" has now come down to three companies:  the standard-bearing Boeing Co., the upstart SpaceX, and the solid-but-under-the-radar Sierra Nevada Corporation.

NASA will award a total of $1.1 billion to all three firms in a bid for three working prototypes that will compete for the prize of being the next generation's shuttle fleet.  Boeing Co. will receive the most- $460 million.  SpaceX, founded by Tesla CEO and PayPal co-creator Elon Musk, $440 million, and Sierra Nevada $212.5 million.   The arrangement benefits everyone involved:  even the two companies who lose out on the choice will still have working spacecraft they can develop for commercial purposes.

And for anyone worried about the price-tag of the awarded funding, consider that the companies themselves have to pay for development and testing costs.  NASA and the US taxpayer are essentially putting a relatively moderate investment down on the ingenuity of the private sector doing what it does best: competing against itself.  And when you factor in how much money it costs to do business with Roscosmos per astronaut they fly on Soyuz (The same one from 1975.  Say what you will about the Russians, they're certainly economical), this is a necessary investment to make.

So which firm stands the best chance of being the commercial vehicle NASA chooses for full-time service?  Let's look at the contenders:

The Boeing Company - Houston, TX

PROS Doesn't hurt that Boeing is one of the oldest, largest, most recognized, and reliable private partners of the United States government.  Boeing is a proven company more than capable of delivering a design to NASA that could be ready by 2016.  Their CST-100 capsule is kind of a steroid version of the Apollo command module.  It can fit seven people and is designed to remain in orbit for up to seven months.  Its drawing from tried and true space tech like Apollo and other ISS programs contributes to it being a secure design that will most likely hold up in application, which for launching humans into space, kind of has to be the top priority.

CONS The seven-manned CST-100 is good for just ten missions.  It also needs to be launched with a NASA-provided rocket, like Atlas V, making it easy to incorporate into existing technology, but not exactly an independent spacecraft that can foot the entire bill.   Boeing also plans to charge NASA per seat as well, although it hasn't disclosed the price (They've assured it won't be as high as the Russians). Still, NASA and tax-payers have to pay for the rocket power to break orbit, and the seats to hold the astronauts, for ten missions maximum.  Meh.

SpaceX - Hawthorne, CA 

PROS - SpaceX's Dragon design has one major, major advantage over its competition: it's already BEEN in space!   The Dragon, famously named by Elon Musk, not only beat gravity on its virgin launch in May 2012 but made a successful dock at the ISS for a week as well.  Dragon performed perfectly as it was launched on SpaceX's Falcon9 rocket, and was also the first commercial vehicle ever to receive a "reentry license" from the FAA (yes those really exist).  It's a feat all the more impressive when you think about just how relatively new the company is-founded in 2002- compared to its rivals.

CONS - SpaceX's work with the Dragon and passenger-adjusted DragonRider has been pretty impressive, with a track record that's hard to criticize.  Of course, the Dragon's first flight carried cargo, not people, which may prove a bit more challenging.  The one truly negative thought I have is the same I get with Boeing; why are we still using capsule technology?  Yes, it has been proven to work.  So has the steam engine, the buggy whip, and the Gutenberg Press.  I thought the shuttle design of the 80's was a significant improvement on saving energy and fuel in spaceflight, yet everyone has seemed to ignore it in the next generation of designs.  Well not everyone....

Sierra Nevada Corporation - Louisville, Colorado

PROS - Aesthetically speaking, Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser is my absolute favorite design.  This baby is just beautiful.  Clearly based on NASA's shuttle technology, the Dream Chaser also fits on an Atlas V rocket, where after launch it can fly on its own, can glide back into re-entry, easing the heat stress on the vehicle, and can land on any ordinary airport runway, if need be.  It's also designed for ethanol-based fuel, which is way less explosively volatile, making it safer than its predecessors.  The heat shield is basically one giant tile, as opposed to a bunch of smaller tiles, of which the dislodging of just one caused the Columbia disaster.  And while Sierra Nevada only received $212.5 million from NASA under the CCiCAP program, that only speaks to how cost-effective the Dream Chaser is.  It's a composite design, making it lightweight, cheap, and therefore, able to be multiplied into a fleet (a goal of both NASA and Sierra Nevada) 

CONS - Aside from the fact NASA once again has to provide the rocket, Dream Chaser's innovation also makes it the model with the least amount of proven technology.  There a bunch of question marks that could add up to costly mistakes, financially and maybe worse.  How will the composite hide hold up in space?  Does the giant heat tile make the structure a little more rigid than it should be?  What are the unforeseen effects of ethanol fuel in space?  We may not know until it actually takes flight.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

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