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NASA’s Commercial Resupply and Crew programs open a new frontier for private enterprise.
BY CRAIG COLLINS
On the morning of July 21, 2011, when the space shuttle Atlantis touched down at the Kennedy Space Center just before six o’clock, it was the end of a 30-year era that had begun with the program’s maiden flight in 1981. The world had never seen anything like the space shuttle orbiter, a reusable spaceplane that could fly into orbit and back. Able to haul more than 15 tons to a height of up to 350 miles above Earth, the shuttle was the only vehicle that conceivably could have conveyed the International Space Station’s (ISS) 4-meter-long modules to their new homes in orbit. Thirty years of crewed shuttle flights had been an era of triumph (355 individuals from 16 countries, and more than 3.5 million pounds of cargo, ferried into orbit) and tragedy (the loss of 14 astronauts, and the orbiters Challenger and Columbia, to accidents in 1986 and 2003, respectively).
Thirty years is a long time to rely on a single spacecraft; the only older vehicle is the Russian Soyuz capsule – which has undergone numerous upgrades since rolling off the line in 1966. In anticipation of the shuttle era’s end, NASA officials began formulating plans for new vehicles long before the retirement of the fleet. In the 1980s, when ideas for a space station began percolating at the agency, the administration of President Ronald Reagan envisioned a platform that would commercialize space and open up a multibillion-dollar market in low-Earth orbit (LEO). The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 was aimed, in part, at authorizing and enabling private entrepreneurs to develop rockets and satellites, and to operate their own launch sites and services.
However, private companies initially preferred a lower-risk approach, sticking to applications where they could use publicly owned hardware to get their own products – typically, microsatellites or scientific experiments – into space. Through NASA’s Centers for the Commercial Development of Space initiative begun in 1985, and the Centers for the Commercial Development of Space that it established, private companies were able to send payloads into space on the shuttle and on Spacehab, a transport module developed by commercial entrepreneurs that bolted into the cargo bay of a shuttle orbiter.
Still, there was no sustained private sector effort to create new systems for space transport. After the loss of Columbia and its crew in 2003, NASA grounded the shuttle fleet while its engineers investigated the cause of the accident. For more than two years, the crew of the space station was reduced from three people to two; and though work had begun on both the European Space Agency (ESA) Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) cargo vessels in the early 1990s, the only cargo vehicle available was the Russian Progress spacecraft, a modified Soyuz that could only carry enough supplies for two crewmembers.
Space station partners understood that new launch, crew, and cargo vehicles were key to a more sustainable – and less expensive – future for the orbital outpost. The postshuttle era necessarily would begin with a reliance on the Soyuz to bring crewmembers to the space station in three-person rotations, but Soyuz seats were expensive: By 2018, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, was charging about $80 million per passenger for a trip to the orbiting laboratory.
International partners worked to devise a solution and maximize their utilization of the orbiting laboratory. The ESA developed the ATV, capable of delivering more than 17,000 pounds of supplies to the station. The ATV flew five missions between 2008 and 2014. JAXA completed development of the HTV, the Kounotori, with a cargo capacity of 16,800 pounds, which first traveled to the space station in September 2009. It has since flown nine missions to the orbital outpost.
NASA hatched its own plan to encourage and support the growth of a market for cargo and crew transports while focusing more of its own resources on ambitious goals for exploring beyond low-Earth orbit. In 2006, the agency launched its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program and invited private companies to submit competing designs for commercial cargo vessels. The fruits of COTS were borne six years later, when the Dragon, the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to the space station, launched from the Kennedy Space Center atop a Falcon 9 rocket and delivered supplies to the orbiting laboratory. The cargo capsule, developed by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), carried 1,000 pounds of cargo to the space station. In September 2013, Orbital Sciences Corp. (now Northrop Grumman) followed with its own resupply mission, launching an expendable Cygnus spacecraft to the station. The Cygnus, which carried roughly 1,500 pounds of cargo on its demonstration mission, was launched atop an Antares rocket from NASA’s flight facility on Wallops Island, Virginia.
The Dragon and Cygnus systems were developed through fixed-price contracting – a departure from the traditional model for developing space hardware and capabilities. The Apollo spacecraft and space shuttle orbiters, for example, were built and integrated by private-sector contractors, but their design and development were controlled almost exclusively by NASA engineers, and nearly all the money to build them would come from the federal government, which would be the only customer to use them. NASA’s 21st century transports, however, would be public private partnerships: NASA established the requirements for the systems, and certified that the requirements had been met, but design and operational decisions were left to private-sector owner-operators, with an eye to a customer base that would expand beyond NASA. The agency intended this new generation of commercial cargo and crew transits to be a bridge to a robust, profitable low-Earth orbit market, populated by multiple users and served by multiple providers.
NASA’s modest $800 million investment in the COTS program was a huge success, leveraging the introduction of two new medium-class launch vehicles and two automated cargo spacecraft, whose operators now count the agency as just one among several customers in the low-Earth orbit market. At NASA, the developmental COTS program promptly transitioned into the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program, which focuses on actual deliveries to the space station. SpaceX and Northrop Grumman were awarded contracts to deliver at least 20 metric tons of cargo to the orbital outpost. The first phase of CRS deliveries began in 2012, with regular Dragon and Cygnus deliveries, and concluded on March 7, 2020, with the final launch of SpaceX’s Dragon.
A second round of contracts, awarded in 2016, included SpaceX’s updated Dragon 2 vehicle, Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus, and a third cargo spacecraft developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation: the Dream Chaser®, a reusable shuttle-like craft derived from a NASA spaceplane concept. Phase 2 of the CRS program began with a Cygnus mission in November 2019 that delivered a record 8,200 pounds of cargo to the station. The first launch of SpaceX’s new cargo Dragon – a variant of the Crew Dragon with the ability to autonomously dock – is scheduled for late 2020, and the Cargo Dream Chaser is scheduled to make its demonstration flight in the fall of 2021.
THE COMMERCIAL CREW PROGRAM
NASA’s program to support the development of private-sector crew transports kicked off in 2010, to allow lead time for the learning curve involved in creating and certifying more complex systems, which would require life support and launch-escape capabilities. With $50 million in NASA seed money, five competitors began designing crew transports; a year later, the field was narrowed to four, who were given an additional $270 million to develop their space shuttle replacements.
NASA later solicited proposals from these companies for complete end-to-end crew transport services: spacecraft, launch vehicles, launch services, mission control, and recovery. After several phases of development and competing designs, NASA announced in September 2014 that two companies – SpaceX and Boeing – had been awarded contracts to provide crewed launch services to the space station. Both companies worked toward the same set of objectives: to develop and launch the crew vehicle that would, in uncrewed and crewed demonstration flights, be certified to NASA’s safety and performance requirements, and then fly subsequent operational flights to the orbiting laboratory.
The development of passenger vehicles with an eye to customers beyond NASA resulted in Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX Crew Dragon, each designed to carry up to seven passengers (though each will use only four seats for NASA missions) and featuring almost roomy interiors, especially when compared to the tight quarters of the Soyuz.
While most spacecraft functions and maneuvers are automated or ground controlled, crews are able to assume manual control. Both will dock automatically with the U.S. Operating Segment (USOS) of the space station and return to Earth. With its airbag-cushioned landing system, the CST-100 Starliner – the first American space capsule designed for terrestrial landing – will land at one of five designated sites in the western United States. The Crew Dragon, like the Apollo capsule, parachutes to an ocean splashdown.
In August 2018, NASA named the nine astronauts initially chosen to complete the first round of test and operational missions for the CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon. Of these nine, eight were active in NASA’s Astronaut Corps; one, Chris Ferguson, was a retired NASA astronaut and an employee of Boeing.
A NEW ERA IN HUMAN SPACEFLIGHT
The CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon, after a series of rigorous tests in the ensuing months, brought the Commercial Crew Program to the brink of its historic achievement in January 2020, when Crew Dragon took off from the Kennedy Space Center and conducted a successful separation-and-abort sequence: intentionally cutting off the Falcon 9’s fuel feed, pushing the capsule clear of the rocket with its abort engines, jettisoning the capsule’s trunk, and then using its smaller thrusters to orient it for a parachuted descent and splashdown off Florida’s Atlantic coast. It was now time for the mission known as “Demo-2”: the test flight that would ensure the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon could fly humans safely.
The crewmembers chosen for this mission were NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, two of the first astronauts to begin working and training on the Crew Dragon, veterans with extensive test pilot and spaceflight experience. Hurley and Behnken completed an intensive training regimen focused on the particulars of Demo- 2, dividing their time among the Kennedy Space Center, where the Crew Dragon capsule arrived in February; NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston; and SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
The milestone was achieved on the afternoon of May 30, 2020, when Hurley and Behnken took off from the same launch pad – Kennedy Space Center’s 39A – that had sent most of the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. It was the first crewed orbital spaceflight launched from the United States since the flight of the orbiter Atlantis in July 2011 – a flight that was piloted, coincidentally, by Hurley. Shortly after launch, Hurley and Behnken, reviving a tradition from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, named their spacecraft Endeavour, in honor of the fifth and final operational space shuttle orbiter.
The following day, a little after 10:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, the Crew Dragon Endeavour docked with the space station, and Behnken and Hurley were greeted by their station crewmates: Chris Cassidy, Anatoli Ivanishin, and Ivan Vagner. Now part of the Expedition 63 crew, Hurley and Behnken would spend two months aboard the orbiting laboratory, conducting research and other tasks with the station crew while also performing further tests on the Crew Dragon spacecraft, before returning to Earth with a splashdown on Aug. 2.
For the space station and its partners, the ability to rely on sustainable commercial crew operations is a momentous achievement. The ability of both CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon to ferry four station crewmembers will increase the crew complement on the station from six to seven. In subtracting from the time other crewmembers will have to spend on routine tasks such as maintenance and cleaning, that additional astronaut will actually double the amount of total crew research time in the orbiting laboratory, from about 40 to 80 hours a week.
In the wider world, the successes of companies such as SpaceX, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Sierra Nevada have achieved something NASA envisioned as a collateral objective of its first private resupply contracts more than a decade ago: They’ve seeded a vibrant and growing marketplace for products and services in space. SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA, the rocket-building partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin) are the most prolific launchers in the United States, with government, military, private sector, and international customers.
To date, these private launches have been focused on satellites and cargo, but the maturation of the Commercial Crew Program is about to leverage other historic changes. SpaceX recently entered into an agreement with Space Adventures, a Virginia-based space tourism company, to send private citizens into suborbital space. SpaceX also partnered with Houston-based startup Axiom Space to send three space tourists on a 10-day mission to the space station as early as 2021. Meanwhile, private companies such as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic continue with their own development of spacecraft and launch vehicles for tourism, science, and other missions.
This new service economy, delivering cargo, crew, tourists, and other payloads into space, will free up NASA and its partners to work together on answering the big questions that remain about crewed spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit, to return people to the Moon and eventually send them to Mars. Thanks to the new space industry, fostered by NASA, these questions – how far, how fast, and for how long crews can live and work in space without resupply from Earth – have the full attention of NASA and its partners. The answers are well within their reach.