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credit Space Exploration Technologies

For those of you who didn’t spot it in my colleague John Croft’s NASA commercial resupply services (CRS) analysis Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has apparently started a study for NASA on how to send to the International Space Station (ISS), in the payload bay of a Space Shuttle, one of the Californian company’s Dragon capsules to act as a crew return vehicle for the station’s crew

SpaceX is also studying, at NASA’s request, using a Dragon as a “life boat” replacement for, or supplement to, Russia’s Energia-built Soyuz capsules for station egress. Davis says the Dragon life boat, built in a year and to cost $2-3 million more than the basic pressurised version, would be delivered in a Space Shuttle’s cargo bay before the fleet is decommissioned

Before the fleet is decommisioned being the operative phrase here. Could there really be an STS-135 in late 2010? 

A Shuttle delivered Dragon brings back memories of the X-38, a lifting body design that was the basis for a crew return vehicle that landed using a parafoil and skids and was to arrive at ISS via an orbiter. It was cancelled in 2001 despite being a joint project with the European Space Agency

According to SpaceX’s Dragonlab data sheet the vehicle has a width of 3.6m (11.8ft) and a length, with its service module, of 5.2m (17ft) so it looks like it can easily fit in the 18.3m (60ft) long, 4.5m (15ft) wide orbiter payload bay

But I would imagine the Dragon could be used as a crew return vehicle without its service module making life even easier for NASA’s space operations mission directorate (SOMD) and its Shuttle programme contractors; if only they knew about the proposal

Contacting NASA and asking SOMD and the commercial crew and cargo office about it the answer was, we haven’t requested anything

Odd, because I trust my US office co-worker John Croft and having dealt with SpaceX for a number of years now I find it hard to believe they would cite NASA in such a claim if it was just PR fluff. SpaceX may make many claims about its ability to make its first and upper stages reusable but it doesn’t drag government agencies into it  

Could someone inside the Space Shuttle Programme (SSP) or the people working on the SSP extension study have asked SpaceX for this work?

It’s possible but with a two-day holiday in the US I’m not in a position to double check so its time for that blogging favourite, cosmically wild speculation

But my speculation is why it isn’t going to happen. Even with the best intentions Shuttle is not going to operate beyond 2015 (spot the hostage to fortune!) and its missions, if it lasts that long, will be ISS down mass cargo and crew related. Up mass cargo being the province of COTS, assuming those guys get it together by 2011, or maybe 2012

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft development plans are for three demonstration flights, each with increasing capsule technical capability (e..g adding solar arrays, environmental control etc with each flight) and a Dragonlab mission in 2010 along with the first ISS CRS flight, and then another Dragonlab in 2011, probably with another CRS flight. Seven launches between now and perhaps mid-2011 

In the meantime NASA is paying the Russians for crew transport and emergency return and that means a deal has to be signed at least two-years before any hardware arrives. And with an SSP latest end-date of 2015 SpaceX has to deliver by 2013, so really we’re back to 2012 again. That means everything has to go right, everything

Bothering to learn from history suggests that everything going right is unlikely. Its not just Dragon, it is its booster Falcon 9 too. That has to be proven to get Dragon up there to prove it can come down again. It took four launches to get Falcon 1 to orbit successfully and the obstacles along the way weren’t even big issues, they were niggling little technical faults but that’s all it takes

And just for a wildcard what if Orion doesn’t get cancelled, could Lockheed Martin get an Orbiter payload bay compliant capsule ready in time? Is there a parallel LM study ongoing as I type? How different are the two spacecraft in terms of technological readiness at this point in time?

Remember its just wild speculation but interesting at least to me, all the same…