[Note: I asked Pat for permission to do a post about this announcement this afternoon, I figured it was good to have an occasional reminder that we are actually in the 21st century, and not all news is depressing news. -- Jon Goff]
Today NASA announced that it would be awarding contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to complete development of vehicles for carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station. These contracts (up to $4.2B in the case of Boeing, and up to $2.6B in the case of SpaceX) cover not only the remainder of development and certification tasks needed by both providers to enable the first manned demo flights of their respective to ISS in late 2017, but also covers up to 6 crew transfer flights to ISS after that. These awards were "firm fixed-price" FAR contracts, which means that the companies get paid the fixed amount they bid, broken up over a series of technical milestones--if they don't complete a given milestone, they don't get paid, and if things cost more than expected, the companies themselves eat the difference.
For those wondering why Boeing got more than SpaceX, it is simply that they proposed a higher price for completing the same milestones. NASA wanted to have two providers, to make sure that they don't get stuck in a situation where they cannot access their $100B space station in case one vendor has issues with their vehicle or the launcher that boosts it to orbit. There was a third developer, Sierra Nevada Corporation, who was not selected for contract award, presumably because NASA felt that their vehicle was either more risky, or more expensive than those proposed by SpaceX or Boeing.
This award continues a series of programs that started in 2010, with the goal of ending NASA's reliance on Russian Soyuz launches to deliver crewmembers to the station after the retirement of the aging Space Shuttle fleet. Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada had been involved in the most recent round, and another developer, Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos's secretive Seattle-area rocket company) had been involved in along with them in an earlier round. To-date the various teams had developed vehicle designs, tested new rocket propulsion systems, and in the case of SNC, had even flown a full-scale prototype flight vehicle.
CST-100 and Dragon V2
The two vehicles selected (Boeing's CST-100 and SpaceX's Dragon V2) are both capsules, in some ways similar to the capsules used in the Mercury, Gemeni, and Apollo programs. However both of them sport many new features that set them apart from their predecessors. Both Dragon V2 and CST-100 will be using liquid-propellant abort engines mounted behind or on the side of their capsules instead of the old solid-fueled nose-mounted abort motors used for older systems. In the case of SpaceX, this allows their Dragon V2 to subsequently land propulsively on a helipad after their mission (assuming the propellant wasn't used for launch abort purposes). In the case of Boeing they're also looking at land-landings, but using parachutes and air-bags, most likely out in the desert. But in both cases this means no more need for aircraft carriers to pick up the crew afterwards, and in both cases it also means that experiments or other cargo brought back from the space station can be returned to experimenters very quickly--possibly in less than 24 hours.
Both vehicles are being designed to carry up to seven astronauts to the space station, or a smaller number combined with a limited amount of pressurized cargo. Both also are being designed to stay attached to the station for over half a year, to serve as a lifeboat, in case the station has a problem that requires abandoning the facility. This will enable increasing the current ISS crew from 6 (3 Russian cosmonauts + 3 US/Japanese/Canadian/European astronauts) to 7 crew members (3 Russian + 4 US/Japanese/Canadian/European). Because the amount of non-research work on ISS won't increase much with the 7th crew member, this will effectively double the amount of research time the US-side of the ISS can produce (to about 4000 man hours/yr).
SpaceX's Dragon V2 will fly on top of their Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicle. This vehicle has flown several commercial and NASA missions to-date, including several of the older cargo-version of the Dragon capsule. SpaceX is currently working on modifying the first stage of the Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicle to enable it to fly back to the launch pad and land using rocket power, enabling it to be refueled and reused multiple times. If they pull this off (and tests to-date have so far been very promising), they'll likely be able to cut their launch costs in half, making it possible for them to dominate the commercial launch industry. As someone who used to work on vertical take-off and landing rockets at my last company, I'm a huge fan of this approach.
The CST-100 on the other hand is being designed to launch on a range of vehicles, including Falcon 9, but initially focused on the ULA Atlas V launch vehicle. Atlas V has launched nearly 50 times so far (their 50th launch is about to make an attempt this evening if weather cooperates), primarily for DoD and NASA payloads, and is currently the vehicle of choice for deep-space missions and many military payloads. They've come under significant fire lately though because they use Russian produced RD-180 rocket engines. The RD-180 is one of the highest-performance LOX/Kerosene booster engines ever developed, and under the contract they signed with Russia many years ago, they're getting them for an extremely nice price--less than half the cost it would take to make them domestically (Pratt and Whitney did buy the rights to do local manufacture at the time, but the cost never made sense). Unfortunately, the events in Ukraine this year have all the sudden made that deal look like less desirable.Which leads me to my last piece of news for the day:
Blue Origin to Build Domestic RD-180 Replacement
The other piece of very interesting news to come out today is that United Launch Alliance (the Boeing/Lockheed Martin joint venture that makes the Atlas V) is about to announce a partnership with Blue Origin to develop a domestic LOX/Methane booster engine to replace the RD-180. This is interesting for several reasons. First, most people had expected that an RD-180 replacement would be developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne (which through mergers now manufactures most of the large rocket engines in the US other than those built in-house by SpaceX). Blue Origin is pretty tight-lipped, but had shown pictures and videos of tests of a 100,000lbf LOX/Hydrogen rocket engine they developed under funding from an earlier phase of the Commercial Crew program, but nobody had considered them a serious contender for booster engine development (the RD-180 is nearly 800,000lbf at liftoff). Second, because Blue Origin is already working on some of its own reusable launch vehicles, the engines they're making for ULA will likely be designed from the start for reusability similar to what SpaceX is doing. Third, while we won't know until the press conference, it's likely Blue Origin was already working on this engine internally for their own purposes, so they may be closer to having something flight-ready than AR, and I wouldn't be surprised if they were able to offer ULA a much better development price than AR because this is an engine Bezos wanted already for his own vehicles. Lastly, LOX/Methane is slightly higher performance than LOX/Kerosene, and it is also cheaper, and makes reuse and high-performance staged-combustion engines a lot easier than LOX/Kerosene, which means the engines might actually end up being cost-competitive with the Russian engines they'll be replacing.
What Does This All Mean?
This is all fairly exciting for those of us following the space industry. While NASA's overemphasis on theoretical crew safety at all costs will likely make these vehicles more expensive to develop and operate than is necessary, these will continue transitioning NASA space logistics to commercial providers. This will hopefully open up new markets for alternative space facilities such as those Bigelow Aerospace are trying to develop, and might eventually get to the point where they start making access to space something that isn't just an option for billionaires and civil servants. There's a long way to go, and either Congress or NASA could still muck things up with underfunding or over-regulating things (to simplify a complex situation), but this is a good step forward. And Blue Origin teaming with ULA may enable them to start competing more direclty with SpaceX--that would be a very good thing. Think AMD vs. Intel, but with supersonic hot flamey stuff.