Obama’s spaceflight decision: Can commercial win?

by | Aug 24, 2009 | Seradata News | 9 comments

Flightglobal’s spaceflight analysis this week looks at the 10 August announced Commercial Crew Development (CCdev) programme and it and its participants’ prospects when US president Barack Obama could kill all hopes for an instant market by not choosing commercial space transportation

Looking at the list of 50 or so companies that have expressed an interest in CCDev some names are more credible than others. All the aerospace primes. Lockheed Martin, the joint venture United Launch Alliance, ATK et al are there and their previous teaming partner PlanetSpace.

The problem for the primes is that to date they have not succeeded in bidding for commercial contracts. Beaten by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and Commercial Resupply Services competitions these “old space” aerospace prime contractors are not obviously a good bet

Looking further down the list’s aerospace industry food chain (or is that up?) and selecting on the basis of cashflow and technology and not just collective brain power SpaceX and Orbital spring out at the reader as does Bigelow Aerospace and Blue Origin

Orbital Sciences has been very radio silent with past Flightglobal interview requests not responded too and no reply to an email about its CCDev intentions, so its situation is difficult to judge as is Blue Origin’s

The secrecy of Blue Origin and the resources of its alleged billionaire owner Jeff Bezos (alleged billionaire status not his ownership of the company) means that its position is also difficult to judge and could mean it is a wild card. However Blue Origin has only been aiming for a sub-orbital system and over the years its design has changed from a single-stage-to-suborbit vertical take-off vertical landing rocket towards a more conventional rocket and capsule

The team that Hyperbola thinks could be quite interesting is a Bigelow Aerospace, SpaceX partnership but is Bigelow, a company that has told Hyperbola it is to make a CCDev proposal, about to take a different turn?Bigelow, led by hotelier Robert Bigelow, another individual identified as a billionaire by some media, could lead a team with a marketing led pitch that describes a private space station, ISS customer base as its business rationale for a crew transport system

NASA’s CCDev solicitation document states that the agency will evaluate a business’ viability on the basis that “The participant shall provide data that demonstrates the participant viability as an ongoing company able to provide the proposed commercial crew space transportation capability once developed”. So having a clearly identified second customer, the private space station, would seem like a pretty good feature of any proposal

And now we know what transport system Bigelow has in mind, apparently a scaled down version of NASA’s Orion crew exploration vehicle that would sit atop a Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance Atlas V, which for years we have been told can be human rated merely with the addition of a disaster detection system

This blog has addressed the issue of human rating Atlas V and the slight problem of its engines being Russian

And if that wasn’t enough Hyperbola has in the past spoken to senior, eh make that, very senior Lockheed Martin Space System’s space exploration officials and the story this blog gets about the alleged Bigelow, Lockheed co-operation on the blogosphere’s holy grail of a crew launching Atlas V is, eh, now don’t be too upset, a couple of friends yakking over whisky tumblers

In the MSNBC/space.com article Bigelow spokesman (and counsel I think) Mike Gold says he “believes” this Orion lite/Atlas V launch system could be launched in 2013 but Hyperbola has had no indication of substantial work having been done for this launch system. And in the space.com article it states “Gold would not say whether Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin has or will have any involvement in Orion Lite” and that Lockheed did not respond to space.com’s calls

While Scott Horowitz, when he was head of exploration systems, did tell Flightglobal that Orion subsystems could be used for commercial ventures one wonders what the legal situation is with the intellectual property rights for a vehicle that would be designated a “national asset”

To be fair to Lockheed, Orion is a key part of the Constellation programme and the entire Moon return effort could be about to be cancelled. The problems for Lockheed in talking publicly about using Constellation systems for a commercial venture begin with maintaining relations with NASA personnel (I’ve seen senior Constellation personnel and Lockheed managers publicly clash over the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, Ares I crew launch vehicle debate), the wider politics of the space sector, the Obama administration and Congress, and then the nitty gritty of the legal agreements regarding who owns what

For a commercial venture, while Lockheed is a large company with a successful spaceflight legacy with that history comes pension and health programme liabilities that stack its cost base in the wrong direction

What will a Bigelow, Lockheed team get for a few tens of millions of dollars, if the proposal is accepted? Remember Kistler Aerospace and its K-1? They spent, what, $600 million using the aerospace primes as their subcontractors and ended up with hardware nicely warehoused but never flown

Wouldn’t teaming with SpaceX provide a better hourly labour cost rate? Or is Bigelow planning a dream team proposal using both companies?

What makes Hyperbola wonder if SpaceX is going to be a prime and may instead be a sub on a team is the odd response this blog received to an enquiry about CCDev

After asking SpaceX if it would submit a proposal Hyperbvola waited three days for this statement attributed to Lawrence Williams, SpaceX Vice President of Strategic Relations: “”SpaceX enthusiastically supports NASA’s historic decision to invest in developing domestic human spaceflight capabilities on a commercial basis.  Congress has now officially authorized and appropriated the Commercial Crew Development program, which aligns with the Augustine Commission’s recommendation for a robust, multi-year commercial human spaceflight initiative.  Given the Congressional approval and the Augustine Commission’s recommendations, it appears almost certain that commercial human spaceflight will be a critical part of NASA’s exploration plans going forward.”

Nice warm words, but what are they actually going to do?!

Hyperbola’s theory about this is that as CCDev is about assisting companies develop “capabilities and technologies” for mitigating risk for crew transport, it could include an emergency detection and launch abort system (LAS)

NASA says of its CCDev selection evaluation that “Key…factors include the degree of progress on long lead capabilities, technologies, and commercial crew risk mitigation tasks associated with proposed commercial crew space transportation system goals and the likelihood of successful execution of performance milestones as proposed.”

Is basic work for a common emergency detection system or even a LAS a viable, achievable goal over 10-months?

SpaceX has said a period of about two years is needed for developing a LAS for Dragon but surely Lockheed could bring data to the table that could shorten that?

On the other hand SpaceX may well go ahead and be a prime with its own proposal. Other firms on the list of interested companies that are linked to SpaceX include its COTS partners Paragon Space Development, which was to provide life-support systems for Dragon and Odyssey Space Research and Ares, which will provide safety and mission assurance expertise

But NASA does say in its pre-proposal conference charts that it could award the $50 million to just one organisation/team. Why not have a Bigelow led team that includes SpaceX and Lockheed?

BTW the ARRA that is funding this programme also had a further $100 million for commercial spaceflight with $40 million going towards analysing the reliablity of the COTS and CRS providers launch vehicles – those being Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 9 and Orbital Sciences’ Taurus II. Something to think about

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