Much has been made of the support Norman Augustine’s committee has given to commercial spaceflight but what hasn’t been talked about is the mystery booster

In the full Review of US human spaceflight plans report it separates the booster from the capsule for the commercial crew competiton it is proposing and refers to a high reliability booster with a track record that NASA would provide but oddly it is not named. On page 70 the report says

In addition, the Committee believes that if a commercial crew program is pursued, NASA should make available to bidders a suitable version of an existing booster with a demonstrated track record of successful flight, adding to the program cost.

Some might have assumed that this was an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, either United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V or its Delta IV but if so why not just say so?

According to the report it will have a track record which suggests that it should be flying already, so why not name it?

Could it then be the Delta II, a rocket that we always hear is about to have its last launch? But that only has a measly 5,430kg to low Earth orbit capability so its unlikely to be it, not based on that payload capacity data anyway it doesn’t look quite enough. Not if you want a six crew International Space Station emergency return capable vehicle. It’s a shame because the Delta has, according to this document, a very good reliability

So why not those EELVs?

The EELVs have their fair share of challenges, from the revelation that the Atlas V was apparently deemed unsafe by the Orbital Space Plane programme and its Russian engine situation, to the Delta IV needing a new upper stage and a new launch pad – the latter being mentioned by United Launch Alliance CEO Michael Gass at the 17 June Augustine hearing

Could it be a foreign launcher? NASA administrator Charles Bolden told this journalist at the 60th International Astronautical Congress in Korea in October that it would be up to US president Barack Obama to decide to what degree international partners were “on the critical path” for crew transport. Could a Samara Space Center Soyuz-FG launch a “commercial” capsule from French Guiana? Alas that six crew capability necessary capsule won’t like that, assuming that is actually needed

So what could this mystery booster be? Could it be the Ares I? Probably not if you want a 2016 first launch that fits within the Obama 2010 NASA budget request

Could it be a booster of the future? When the report says track record it doesn’t say a record yet to be substantiated but it does’nt not say that either

Could there be a booster that would have flown dozens of times by 2016? Yes, its Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 9 and it has a 10,450kg to LEO (28.5 degree inclination) capability – SpaceX says that would only be slightly lower for the ISS’ 52 degrees orbital inclination location. And then there is the heavy version with its three liquid cores and its 26,000kg to LEO potential

But why not Orbital Sciences’ Taurus II I hear you ask? Because this blog post is going to assume that the Space News article not naming it as a company selected for NASA’s Commercial Crew Development activity is correct – so no crew transport for Orbital

Hyperbola has even heard gossip that the Augustine committee had Falcon 9 in mind. Certainly SpaceX can jump for joy if true because the committee’s report goes on to say on page 70

As will be discussed in Section 5.4.2., the Committee reviewed convincing evidence

of the value of independent oversight in the mission assurance of launchers, and would envision a strong NASA oversight role in assuring commercial vehicle safety. The challenge of developing a safe and reliable commercial capability for crew transport will require devoting government funds to “buy down” a significant amount of the existing uncertainty. Whatever the particulars of this risk removal process, it will take an appreciable period of time and require the application of thorough, independent mission-assurance practices. A critical aspect of this exercise will be confirming the root cause and adequacy of correction of any failures or anomalies encountered in the development test program. [emphasis added]

The report then goes on to say, again on page 70, that

NASA should make available…a suitable version of an existing booster…adding to the program cost. The best preliminary estimate of the Committee was about a $3 billion program for the fraction of the design, development, test, and evaluation (DDT&E) effort that would be borne by NASA. After multiplying by the historical growth factors and

other multipliers associated with 65 percent confidence estimating (as will be discussed in Section 6.3), the cost carried in the Committee’s final estimate of the cost of the program to NASA is about $5 billion.[emphasis added]

This suggests that NASA’s costs for crew transport will almost entirely be taken up with the booster suggesting the commercial partner will have to find all the funds for the capsule or at least NASA’s share of that spend will be very limited. But if you’re making the booster your laughing all the way to the bank it would seem – are we still sure Ares I won’t get selected?

But it gets worse. On page 71 the report says

It was estimated by the Committee that under the “less constrained budget” to be discussed in Chapter 6, the commercial crew launch service could be in place by 2016. Estimates from providers ranged from three years to five years from the present. Assuming a year for program re-alignment, this would produce a start in early FY 2011. Using the upper end of the estimated range, a capability in 2016 could be estimated with reasonable confidence.[emphasis added]

The less constrained budget adds $3 billion over the next four fiscal years. What is the likelihood of that happening?

The situation that exists is that the Augustine committee sees a commercial option operating by 2016 only if there is extra NASA cash. Neither does it envisage a truly commercial procurement process, NASA is now on the critical path with the booster. And not just for mission assurance that is clear. Now the booster is independent of much of the commercial partners whose sole aim is to produce an American Soyuz with a minimum of three seats and a maximum of six, one would imagine

The question that remains with Hyperbola is, is that booster Ares I or Falcon 9 because that choice is all important