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SpaceX landing ship
On its next launch, scheduled for the morning of January 6, SpaceX will attempt to land its first stage on this “autonomous spaceport drone ship” in the Atlantic. (credit: SpaceX)

In with the new, and the old

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For many people, today is the beginning of the work week and work year (on the assumption that January 1 was a holiday and many took Friday, January 2, off.) It’s an opportunity to put 2014 firmly in the rearview mirror and look ahead to a new year, with new challenges and new opportunities, something that’s true in space as well as life in general.

The GAO has not issued a decision on the protest yet, so the companies involved are expecting one to be made today.

However, don’t expect a clean break from 2014 to 2015. The new year brings with it plenty of baggage from the old year, some of which will be addressed as soon as today. As two companies ramp up their work on commercial crew contracts, a third is awaiting the outcome of a protest it filed regarding those contracts. Investigations continue into two high-profile spaceflight accidents that took place in October. And the industry waits to see if SpaceX can deliver on its promises of reusability—as well as an aggressive launch manifest.

Decision day

On September 16, NASA announced the award of two contracts for its Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program, which covers the development and test flights of vehicles to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). NASA awarded a $4.2-billion contract to Boeing and a $2.6-billion contract to SpaceX; both contract values include six operational missions once NASA has certified the vehicles, although each company is guaranteed only two. (See “Commercial crew and commercial engines”, The Space Review, September 22, 2014.)

Losing out in the CCtCap competition was Sierra Nevada Corporation, which offered its Dream Chaser vehicle to NASA. On September 26, the company filed a formal protest of the CCtCap decision with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which adjudicates disputes about federal contract awards. The company argued that it offered a vehicle with similar technical capabilities as the other companies, but at a price up to $900 million less than one of the winners—presumably Boeing. (See “Commercial crew’s extended endgame”, The Space Review, October 20, 2014.)

That filing started a 100-day clock for the GAO to rule on the protest, one that expires on January 5. (Technically the 100 days ended January 4, but since that was a Sunday, the GAO has until the next business day to make a decision.) The GAO has not issued a decision on the protest yet, so the companies involved are expecting one to be made today.

The companies, and NASA, have kept a low profile about the ongoing protest, other than some legal disputes early in the protest. Immediately after Sierra Nevada filed the protest, NASA issued a stop-work order on the CCtCap contracts. However, the agency lifted the order on October 9, saying that any delay in work on the contracts “jeopardizes continued operation of the ISS, would delay meeting critical crew size requirements, and may result in the U.S. failing to perform the commitments it made in its international agreements.”

Sierra Nevada then went to court to try and get the stop-work order restored, arguing it would be harmed if NASA allowed the companies to continue work on the contracts while the protest was evaluated. The Court of Federal Claims rejected that request in a ruling October 20, without elaborating on the reason for the rejection.

In the meantime, Boeing and SpaceX have been working on their CCtCap contracts. In December, NASA announced both companies had completed their initial milestones in their contracts, a certification baseline review that confirms the processes the companies will follow to achieve NASA certification of their vehicles to carry astronauts. Boeing has also completed a second milestone, a critical design review of the ground segment of its system.

The companies have kept a low profile regarding the protest. “There’s not much we can do to influence the process,” said John Elbon, vice president and general manager for space exploration at Boeing, in an interview last month. “I think NASA did a heck of a job and made a sound decision, and I’m hopeful those who are auditing that decision will see it that way.”

There is the possibility—albeit a small one—that the GAO will not rule on Sierra Nevada’s protest on the 5th. Sources familiar with the process say that, technically, the 100-day clock was reset when Sierra Nevada filed an update to its original protest on November 6. That means the GAO could wait until as late as February 17 to rule, although it’s still widely expected to make a decision on January 5.

Commercial cargo competition

A loss of its GAO protest would be a setback for Sierra Nevada, but would not necessarily mean the end of its Dream Chaser vehicle. The company has been talking up various alternative applications for the vehicle, including the development of a derivative that could fly on Stratolauncher air-launch system.

A CST-100 cargo deal “gives us a chance to use the launch vehicle and capsule that are being integrated for crew and get more missions out of it to help with affordability,” Elbon said.

Sierra Nevada is also competing for a new NASA contract to deliver cargo to the station. Company officials confirmed last month that it submitted a proposal to NASA for the Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS2) competition, a follow-on to the existing CRS contracts for transportation of cargo to and from the station. Proposals were due to NASA by December 2, and the agency is expected to award multiple contracts by June of this year.

Another CRS2 competitor is Boeing. In December, company officials confirmed that they submitted a CRS2 proposal using a version of its CST-100 spacecraft it is developing under its CCtCap crew contract. The cargo version of CST-100 will strip out components like its launch abort system and environmental controls to free up room for cargo.

The cargo version of CST-100 will also be able to return items from the station, a capability only SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft currently offers. The cargo version, like the crew vehicle, will land by airbags in the western US, allowing access to the vehicle’s cargo almost immediately after landing. “We’ll be able to get access to the science that’s coming down within an hour or so,” Elbon said last month.

Winning a cargo contract, Elbon suggested, would allow it to improve the overall business case for the CST-100. “It gives us a chance to use the launch vehicle and capsule that are being integrated for crew and get more missions out of it to help with affordability,” he said.

Accident investigations

Boeing and Sierra Nevada are likely competing against the two companies that have the current CRS contracts for transporting cargo to the ISS, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX. (While Orbital confirmed it submitted a CRS2 proposal, a SpaceX spokesman said the company doesn’t comment on whether or not it’s bidding on particular contracts in advance of a contract decision.)

The CRS2 competition comes at a challenging time for Orbital, after the October 28 failure of its Antares rocket on the third of eight contracted CRS missions to the ISS (see “The importance for commercial spaceflight to recover and respond”, The Space Review, November 3, 2014). That decision forced the company to both accelerate existing plans to replace the first-stage engines in the Antares—identified as the likely cause of the failure—and to find alternative ways to fulfill its CRS contract.

In the latter case, that means working with a company than nominally would be considered a competitor. On December 9, the company announced it would purchase an Atlas V launch from United Launch Alliance for a Cygnus cargo mission. That launch, from Cape Canaveral, is planned for the fourth quarter of 2015, with the option of a second launch in 2016.

By 2016, Orbital expects to have an upgraded version of Antares available to resume Cygnus launches from its Virginia launch site. On December 16, the company confirmed a report in Aviation Week that it had selected the RD-181 engine from Russian company Energomash as the replacement for the AJ26—the “Americanized” version of the Soviet-era NK-33—that had previously been used on the Antares first stage.

Orbital now plans three launches of Cygnus spacecraft on its upgraded Antares in 2016. While its CRS contract called for five more launches after the failed October mission, the company said the increased performance offered by both the Atlas V and the upgraded Antares will allow it to carry the same amount of cargo in four missions.

Those plans are underway while Orbital continues its investigation, under FAA oversight, of the October failure. Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) continues to conduct its investigation of the October 31 crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle on a test flight in California, an accident that killed the vehicle’s co-pilot.

“As I travelled from my home to Mojave that Friday evening, I found myself questioning seriously for the first time, whether in fact it was right to be backing the development of something that could result in such tragic circumstances,” Branson said.

While the NTSB held several briefings in the days immediately after the accident, the agency has said little since then. The last public update it provided was on November 12, when it reported it had interviewed the surviving pilot, Peter Siebold. That interview did not appear to offer new insights on what appears to be the leading cause of the accident, the premature unlocking of the vehicle’s feathering system by co-pilot Michael Alsbury. “According to the pilot, he was unaware that the feather system had been unlocked early by the copilot,” the NTSB reported.

Virgin Galactic has quietly moved ahead, continuing work on a second SpaceShipTwo vehicle that was already nearly two-third complete at the time of the accident. That second SpaceShipTwo could be ready for test flights later this year, although the NTSB investigation could take up to a year to complete.

In a statement January 2, Virgin’s founder, Sir Richard Branson, revealed he had doubts about the future of Virgin Galactic immediately after the accident. “As I travelled from my home to Mojave that Friday evening, I found myself questioning seriously for the first time, whether in fact it was right to be backing the development of something that could result in such tragic circumstances,” he said. “In short, was Virgin Galactic and everything it has stood for and dreamt of achieving, really worth it?”

He wrote his confidence in the venture was restored after meeting with company employees and hearing from customers and others. “And so Virgin Galactic goes on, with an unwavering commitment to safety and a renewed sense of purpose,” he said.

SpaceX’s quest for reusability and more

The first launch of 2015 is scheduled for the morning of January 6, when a Falcon 9 rocket will launch a Dragon cargo spacecraft to the ISS from Cape Canaveral. That mission will be the fifth of twelve CRS missions under SpaceX’s current contract with NASA, delivering nearly 2,400 kilograms of cargo to the station.

That mission was scheduled to launch last month, but SpaceX postponed it when it concluded it needed to perform a second static fire of the rocket’s nine first-stage engines on the pad. “While the recent static fire test accomplished nearly all of our goals, the test did not run the full duration,” the company said in a December 18 statement about the delay. “The data suggests we could push forward without a second attempt, but out of an abundance of caution, we are opting to execute a second static fire test prior to launch.”

That need for a second static fire, compounded by other issues, from the holidays to a ten-day period when the ISS’s high “beta angle,” a measure of how much of each orbit the ISS is in sunlight, restricts Dragon from berthing to the station, pushed the launch back to January 6. Weather forecasts call for a 60-percent chance of acceptable weather at launch time.

“There’s at least a dozen launches that will occur over the next 12 months,” Musk said in October. “I think it’s quite likely—probably 80 to 90 percent likely—that one of those flights will be able to land and refly.”

The launch, assuming it does take place on the 6th, will be the first for SpaceX in three and a half months, since the previous CRS mission on September 21. While company officials said early in 2014 it planned to perform ten Falcon 9 launches in 2014, it ended up with only six. That’s raised questions about its ability to carry out an ambitious manifest of commercial and government missions. Its next launch, of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft, has already slipped from January 23 to no earlier than the 29th because of the delay in the CRS mission.

What’s attracted interest in this particular launch, though, has little to do with concerns about the company’s manifest. In its latest test of its effort to develop a reusable version of the Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX plans to try and land the first stage of the rocket on an “autonomous spaceport drone ship”: a barge with a platform about 90 meters long and 50 meters wide, stationed downrange of the launch site in the Atlantic Ocean.

While SpaceX has previously “landed” stages on the surface of the ocean (where they subsequently toppled over and broke apart), landing on a barge requires a far greater landing accuracy. “During previous attempts, we could only expect a landing accuracy of within 10 kilometers,” the company said in a statement last month. “For this attempt, we’re targeting a landing accuracy of within 10 meters.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk publicly announced those plans in an on-stage interview at an MIT event October 24 marking the centennial of the university’s aeronautics and astronautics department. Should the stage successfully land on the platform, it could be potentially refurbished and reflown, he said.

The odds of this particular flight being successful were no greater than 50 percent, Musk said at the event, but even if this test failed, he was optimistic other efforts would eventually be successful. “There’s at least a dozen launches that will occur over the next 12 months,” he said. “I think it’s quite likely—probably 80 to 90 percent likely—that one of those flights will be able to land and refly.”

If SpaceX is successful, either with this upcoming flight or a later attempt, it could make 2015 a very interesting year in spaceflight—after wrapping up the loose ends of 2014.