On May 30 history was made when, for the first time ever, astronauts were carried into orbit in a spacecraft that had been designed and built, and was owned and operated, by a private-sector company, in fulfilment of a commercial transport contract.
Technically, it was a demonstration flight to prove the technology and concept, and its success inaugurates a new era in crewed space missions, in which routine Earth-to-orbit missions, particularly to the International Space Station (ISS), are executed by what, in practice, will be the most high-technology, most-exotic, commercial taxi or bus services in history. The agency contracting these services is, of course, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or Nasa.
The spacecraft concerned was the Crew Dragon, which was launched on a Falcon 9 rocket, the entire system being the product of the SpaceX company, founded by South African-born engineer and entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2002, who is also SpaceX’s chief engineer. And it carried American astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the ISS.
The mission was controlled by SpaceX from its leased (from Nasa) launch control centre at Kennedy Space Centre, at Cape Canaveral, in Florida, and then from its mission control centre at Hawthorne, California. The docking with the ISS was carried out automatically. The entire mission was monitored by Nasa’s own world-renowned Mission Control Centre, at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas. (Behnken, Hurley and the Crew Dragon are expected to return to Earth during August; the exact date has not yet been set.)
“This is a dream come true for me and everyone at SpaceX,” enthused Musk after the launch. “It is the culmination of an incredible amount of work by the SpaceX team, by Nasa and by a number of other partners in the process of making this happen. You can look at this as the results of a hundred thousand people when you add up all the suppliers and everyone working incredibly hard to make this day happen.”
What Nasa officially calls the Commercial Crew Programme (CCP) was launched in 2010, with the agency investing almost $50-million in contracts to five companies for what was called Commercial Crew Development Round 1 (CCDev1). This was followed in 2011 by CCDev2, which saw nearly $270-million awarded to four companies (with two of them subsequently receiving an additional total of $6.2-million).
In August 2012 came the next step, the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability, involving three companies; Boeing received $460-million, Sierra Nevada Corporation $212.5-million and SpaceX $440-million. Subsequently, Boeing received another $20-million, Sierra Nevada a further $15- million and SpaceX also another $20-million. In December 2012, Nasa moved to the following stage, with the award to the same three companies of Certification Products Contracts (Phase 1 of a two-phase process). Boeing got $9.993-million, Sierra Nevada $10-million and SpaceX $9.589-million. Phase 2 of this certification process was designated Commercial Crew Transportation Capability, with contracts awarded to the two final down-selected companies in September 2014 – Boeing and SpaceX. Boeing received $4.2-billion and SpaceX $2.6-billion.
Prior to the CCP, America’s crewed spacecraft were built to design criteria and standards developed by Nasa, and the development and assembly of every aspect of the spacecraft, its support systems and operational plans were overseen by Nasa engineers. Every aspect of the development, testing and operation of the spacecraft involved the close participation of Nasa personnel, and the spacecraft and its operating infrastructure were owned and operated by Nasa.
Under the CCP, while Nasa engineers and specialists work closely with the companies concerned, the contracted enterprises are free to design what they think is the best space transportation system. (This close cooperation means that Nasa understands the companies’ development processes and the companies can access Nasa expertise.) The agency also encourages the companies to use their most effective and efficient business operating and manufacturing processes in the production of their systems. Of course, the companies must meet Nasa’s prescribed requirements. These include the ability to carry four astronauts and equipment safely to and from the ISS, to be able to stay docked with the ISS for at least 210 days and act, in a space emergency, as a safe haven for at least 24 hours. The CCP spacecraft are owned and operated by the companies concerned, and not by Nasa.
“Ultimately, the goal is to establish safe, reliable and cost-effective access to space,” explains Nasa. “Once a transportation capability is certified to meet Nasa requirements, the agency will fly missions to meet its space station crew rotation and emergency return obligations.”
The CCP has stimulated the further development of the American space industry and space technology. Nasa intends to contract both Boeing and SpaceX to provide routine crew transport into space. And by doing this, the agency gets out of the ‘taxi’ business and can devote its time and technical and financial resources to its main mission: scientific exploration, whether of other worlds or of Earth itself, and whether by robotic or crewed missions.
As far as Nasa was concerned, there was never any race between Boeing and SpaceX to be the first to deliver an operational CCP system. But, if there had been, South African-born Musk’s SpaceX would have won it hands down.
The CCP did not suddenly emerge out of nothing. It grew out of Nasa’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme to use commercially developed rockets and robot spacecraft to carry cargo to the ISS. Two companies won, and have successfully executed, commercial ISS resupply contracts – Orbital ATK (now part of Northrop Grumman) and SpaceX. They received their first contracts in December 2008. Orbital ATK’s first ISS resupply mission was successfully executed in September 2013, but SpaceX had beaten its competitor by more than a year, having successfully flown its first such mission in May 2012.
It was to meet the requirements of COTS that SpaceX developed its Dragon robot cargo ship (its development was started in anticipation of the COTS programme, not after the award of the Nasa contract). Dragon made its first test flight at the end of 2010. The Dragon was designed to be reusable (to cut costs) and nine of the cargo ships have indeed been reflown. Consequently, they are fitted with heat shields and landing parachutes.
Their launch rocket – which also launches the Crew Dragon – is SpaceX’s own two-stage Falcon 9, which made its first flight in mid-2010. Early Falcon 9s were used expendably, but Musk was determined to be able to re-use the rocket’s first stage, again to cut costs. The company achieved a successful controlled ground landing at Cape Canaveral shortly before Christmas 2015 and then in April 2016 did the same on to a drone ship off the east coast of Florida (an operationally more convenient option). Since then, Falcon 9 first stages have been routinely landing on these drone ships (of which SpaceX has two), with only rare failures (resulting in the loss of the rocket). SpaceX reports that it has carried out 87 Falcon 9 launches and 48 landings, with 33 of the first stages having so far been reflown.
To save time and money, the Crew Dragon has been based on the Dragon cargo ship. The correctness of this decision has been proven by its results. The Crew Dragon made its first (uncrewed) demonstration flight to, and successfully made an autonomous docking with, the ISS in March 2019. It is designed to carry up to seven astronauts, although four will be the more usual complement. It is of course designed to be reusable. Apart from being equipped to carry passengers, with appropriate seating and life support systems, the Crew Dragon differs from the cargo Dragon in that it has control systems allowing the astronauts to take control of the craft in an emergency (it will normally operate autonomously) and is fitted with an emergency launch-abort escape system. Also, the Crew Dragon differs from the cargo Dragon in that the Crew Dragon’s solar arrays are mounted directly on the hull of its service module and are not deployable, whereas the solar arrays on the cargo Dragon service module are deployable. (In both cases, the service modules are jettisoned before re-entry and subsequently burn up in the atmosphere.) Crew Dragon missions will end with the capsule splashing down in the sea off the east coast of Florida.
Because Crew Dragon (and Falcon 9) are the property of SpaceX, they can be contracted by other entities and by other (approved) countries. They are not reserved for the exclusive use of Nasa.
Boeing’s CCP option is the CST-100 Starliner, CST standing for Crew Space Transportation. Like the Crew Dragon, like Nasa’s own Orion crewed exploration spacecraft, it is a space capsule. The Starliner is designed to be reusable for up to ten times, with six-month turnaround periods between missions. If required, it can also carry up to seven astronauts or a combination of astronauts and cargo, and has what Boeing calls an “innovative, weldless structure”. This latter feature removes the potential risks created by structural welds as well as reducing the spacecraft’s mass and its production time. Like Crew Dragon, it is designed to operate autonomously, but can be controlled by its crew if necessary. Uniquely for an American space capsule, it is designed to come down on land, Russian-style, rather than splashing down in the ocean.
The Starliner is launched by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with a ULA Centaur second stage. (ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.) To date, Boeing has flown one uncrewed Starliner test flight. It did not go according to plan. Launched in December last year, it was designated an orbit flight test (OFT) and the capsule was intended to rendezvous with the ISS. But the Starliner’s on-board timing system malfunctioned and the spacecraft ended up in the wrong orbit. After two days it was safely brought back to Earth and successfully landed. After-mission analysis established there had been two software coding errors and an unexpected loss in space-to-ground communications from the capsule. In all the final investigation report made 80 recommendations that Boeing, with the cooperation of Nasa, is implementing. At Nasa’s request, the review also evaluated the agency’s role and made six recommendations on how Nasa could provide better guidance to, and improved oversight of, its contractors.
As a result, there will have to be a second uncrewed flight test, designated OFT2, before the Starliner is allowed to carry astronauts into space. No date has yet been set for OFT2. “I can’t stress enough how committed the Boeing team has been throughout this process,” highlighted Nasa commercial spaceflight development director Phil McAlister. “Boeing has worked collaboratively with Nasa to perform these detailed assessments. To be clear, we have a lot more work ahead, but these significant steps help us move forward on the path toward resuming our flight tests.”
The success of COTS and the great progress in CCP have encouraged Nasa to expand the concept to the Moon. Under its new crewed space exploration programme, Artemis, the agency will establish an outpost in lunar orbit, called Gateway. This will be resupplied by commercial cargo missions. More than that, Nasa intends that the crewed spacecraft that will carry astronauts from lunar orbit to the Moon’s surface and back again will be provided by companies on a commercial contract basis, like the CCP. Three companies have been selected to develop, demonstrate and provide such Human Landing System spacecraft and services – Blue Origin, Dynetics and, unsurprisingly in view of its record, SpaceX.