Critical Rocket Launch Will Help Crown the Winner of the New Space Race
Thursday afternoon, a spacecraft is scheduled to blast off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, hoisting 7,700 pounds of supplies to the crew on the International Space Station.
On the surface, that’s nothing dramatic or novel. The rocket isn’t going anywhere we haven’t been before. But the journey is one more lap in the ongoing space race underway among several private space companies—Orbital ATK, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada—for a $3.5 billion NASA contract to keep the ISS astronauts well-fed, warm and occupied.
NASA is preparing to pick one, or possibly two, companies for the seven-year contract. But in the past two years, this space race has been more NASCAR than Apollo. In October 2014, Orbital’s Antares rocket—also carrying ISS supplies—blew up shortly after liftoff. In April 2015, the Russians lost their Progress 59 cargo craft on the way to the station. In June 2015, Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket—boosting an uncrewed Dragon cargo ship—exploded after launch from Canaveral.
Given these wipeouts, the stakes for the upcoming cargo launch on Dec. 3 are a little higher. The crew of the ISS isn’t in danger of starving to death or anything like that; no, this is all about what the political people now call “optics.” Some commercial space company has to prove to an agency with a checkbook that it can reliably get to the ISS.
“The development of new rockets has always been difficult,” says Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator under President Obama from 2008 until 2013. She’s now general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association. “It’s yet to be seen how it will work for commercial companies. We use ‘rocket science’ as an example of the hardest thing for a reason: it is hard.”
Unlike satellite launches, sending up rockets to supply (and someday deliver) astronauts is not only hard, but also expensive. The SpaceX failure alone cost taxpayers $110 million.
Made in the USA
NASA has been relying on Russian and Japanese launches to keep the ISS supply train moving. But Congress wants the space agency to get American launch vehicles back into the sky. “The United States has been the lead in this sector since the beginning,” Garver said. “And we want to keep that lead. Of course we understand the partnerships are very beneficial, but without launch capability, it would be like giving up making our own airplanes.”
Given current tensions with Russia over geopolitical issues, it’s always good to have more options. And with NASA and its international partners planning to keep the ISS running until at least 2024, the cargo contract will be a key source of money for the booming private space industry. The problem is that NASA’s budget—just like every other agency in the federal government—is at the mercy of Congress, which has passed a series of “continuing resolutions” instead of a longer-term budget plan. That means delays in picking a cargo crew contractor, a choice now scheduled for the end of January.
“For NASA, the biggest uncertainty is how much can they afford to do,” says Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and NASA associate administrator for program analysis under President George W. Bush.
For Thursday’s launch, Orbital’s ATK Cygnus vehicle will ride atop an Atlas V rocket (built by competitor United Launch Alliance, which recently dropped out of the chase for the resupply contract). The Atlas V uses Russian-made RD-180 engines, something that the Pentagon won’t allow on its spy satellite program, and that may give the edge to SpaceX or Orbital TDK if they can get their “Made in USA” launch vehicles flying again.
SpaceX plans to launch a reconfigured Falcon 9 rocket to the ISS on Jan. 3. As for the underdog, Sierra Nevada’s DreamChaser cargo ship may be just that. “Sierra Nevada has been self-funding, so it’s not clear how long they can keep doing that,” Pace says. “But they have hung in there longer than people thought they would.”
Here’s a very dramatic-sounding rendering of how the DreamCatcher is supposed to work:
NASA won’t comment directly on the contract process, but a spokesperson says the agency took knowledge gained from the first crew contracts and applied it to the requirements for the offers made on the second contracts. For example, the requirement is for individual missions, rather than specifying the delivery of 20 metric tons of mass. (These missions will be heavier, anyway.)
“We need cargo delivered to the International Space Station on a regular and reliable basis,” says NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz in an e-mail. “Regular commercial resupply missions enable NASA and our partners to continue our extensive and ongoing scientific research aboard the International Space Station.”
During the contract-awarding window, none of the bidders would comment on their projects.
The Next Stage
Once NASA administrators make their final decision (expected at the end of January), the next step will be to pick a private company that can reliably deliver not cargo but actual astronauts. That competition is down to SpaceX and ULA/Boeing, but Pace believes that the commercial space industry needs a bigger goal than just driving to the same low-earth orbit place every few months.
“There is no commercial market other than the station right now,” Pace says. “The real concern is what comes after.”
Like what? Well, Mars, right? That’s where Elon Musk says he wants SpaceX to go. And according to a new report by the inspector general,
NASA won’t be able to send a human mission to Mars until the 2030s. The report found that the space agency “faces significant challenges” ensuring the safety of any Mars-bound astronauts.
Actually, both Pace and Garver said that a better target is only three days journey away from Earth. “The people who knew how to fly to the Moon are all retired or dead,” Pace says. “It is not just people or technologies that fly into space, it is entire organizations.”
A lunar voyage set up as as a private-public-international deal would both spread out the risk and lower the cost. Of course, that decision would have to be made by the next president. “The Apollo program was all about demonstrating about what the us could do by itself,” Pace said. “Today space leadership is about how many people can you get to come with you.”
But even if the next stop is the Moon, the first stop will have to be the space station.