NASA Orders Additional Astronaut Taxi Flights from Boeing and SpaceX to the ISS

In a significant step towards restoring America’s indigenous human spaceflight capability and fostering the new era of commercial space fight, NASA has awarded a slew of additional astronaut taxi flights from Boeing and SpaceX to carry crews to the International Space Station (ISS).

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SpaceX and NASA Confirm Delay of First Crewed Dragon Flight to 2018

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Launching Americans back to space and the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil on American rockets via NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) has just suffered another significant but not unexpected delay, with an announcement from NASA that the target date for inaugural crewed flight aboard a SpaceX commercial Crew Dragon has slipped significantly from 2017 to 2018.

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NASA Estimates SpaceX 2018 Mars Mission Will Cost Only $300 Million

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018.  Credit: SpaceX

Ever since Musk founded SpaceX is 2002, with the intention of eventually colonizing Mars, every move he has made has been the subject of attention. And for the past two years, a great deal of this attention has been focused specifically on the development of the Falcon Heavy rocket and the Dragon 2 capsule – the components with which Musk hopes to mount a lander mission to Mars in 2018.

Among other things, there is much speculation about how much this is going to cost. Given that one of SpaceX’s guiding principles is making space exploration cost-effective, just how much money is Musk hoping to spend on this important step towards a crewed mission? As it turns out, NASA produced some estimates at a recent meeting, which indicated that SpaceX is spending over $300 million on its proposed Mars mission.

These estimates were given during a NASA Advisory Council meeting, which took place in Cleveland on July 26th between members of the technology committee. During the course of the meeting, James L. Reuter – the Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate – provided an overview of NASA’s agreement with SpaceX, which was signed in December of 2014 and updated this past April.

In accordance with this agreement, NASA will be providing support for the company’s plan to send an uncrewed Dragon 2 capsule (named “Red Dragon”) to Mars by May of 2018. Intrinsic to this mission is the plan to conduct a propulsive landing on Mars, which would test the Dragon 2‘s SuperDraco Descent Landing capability. Another key feature of this mission will involve using the Falcon Heavy to deploy the capsule.

The terms of this agreement do not involve the transfer of funds, but entails active collaboration that would be to the benefit parties. As Reuters indicated in his presentation, which NASA’s Office of Communications shared with Universe Today via email (and will be available on the STMD’s NASA page soon):

“Building on an existing no-funds-exchanged collaboration with SpaceX, NASA is providing technical support for the firm’s plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars. This collaboration could provide valuable entry, descent and landing (EDL) data to NASA for our journey to Mars, while providing support to American industry. We have similar agreements with dozens of U.S. commercial, government, and non-profit partners.”

Further to this agreement is NASA’s commitment to a budget of $32 million over the next four years, the timetable of which were partially-illustrated in the presentation: “NASA will contribute existing agency resources already dedicated to [Entry, Descent, Landing] work, with an estimated value of approximately $32M over four years with approximately $6M in [Fiscal Year] 2016.”

According to Article 21 of the Space Act Agreement between NASA and SpaceX, this will include providing SpaceX with: “Deep space communications and telemetry; Deep space navigation and trajectory design; Entry, descent and landing system analysis and engineering support; Mars entry aerodynamic and aerothermal database development; General interplanetary mission advice and hardware consultation; and planetary protection consultation and advice.”

For their part, SpaceX has not yet disclosed how much their Martian mission plan will cost. But according to Jeff Foust of SpaceNews, Reuter provided a basic estimate of about $300 million based on a 10 to 1 assessment of NASA’s own financial commitment: “They did talk to us about a 10-to-1 arrangement in terms of cost: theirs 10, ours 1,” said Reuter. “I think that’s in the ballpark.”

As for why NASA has chosen to help SpaceX make this mission happen, this was also spelled out in the course of the meeting. According to Reuter’s presentation: “NASA conducted a fairly high-level technical feasibility assessment and determined there is a reasonable likelihood of mission success that would be enhanced with the addition of NASA’s technical expertise.”

Such a mission would provide NASA with valuable landing data, which would prove very useful when mounting its crewed mission in the 2030s. Other items discussed included NASA-SpaceX collaborative activities for the remainder of 2016 – which involved a “[f]ocus on system design, based heavily on Dragon 2 version used for ISS crew and cargo transportation”.

It was also made clear that the Falcon Heavy, which SpaceX is close to completing, will serve as the launch vehicle. SpaceX intends to conduct its first flight test (Falcon Heavy Demo Flight 1) of the heavy-lifter in December of 2016. Three more test flights are scheduled to take place between 2017 and the launch of the Mars lander mission, which is still scheduled for May of 2018.

In addition to helping NASA prepare for its mission to the Red Planet, SpaceX’s progress with both the Falcon Heavy and Dragon 2 are also crucial to Musk’s long-term plan for a crewed mission to Mars – the architecture of which has yet to be announced. They are also extremely important in the development of the Mars Colonial Transporter, which Musk plans to use to create a permanent settlement on Mars.

And while $300 million is just a ballpark estimate at this juncture, it is clear that SpaceX will have to commit considerable resources to the enterprise. What’s more, people must keep in mind that this would be merely the first in a series of major commitments that the company will have to make in order to mount a crewed mission by 2024, to say nothing of building a Martian colony!

In the meantime, be sure to check out this animation of the Crew Dragon in flight:

Further Reading: NASA STMD
TOTH: SpaceNews

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NASA Receives Significant Budget Boost for Fiscal Year 2016

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration.   Credit: NASA/MSFC

NASA has just received a significant boost in the agency’s current budget after both chambers of Congress passed the $1.1 Trillion 2016 omnibus spending bill this morning, Friday, Dec. 18, which funds the US government through the remainder of Fiscal Year 2016.

As part of the omnibus bill, NASA’s approved budget amounts to nearly $19.3 Billion – an outstandingly magnificent result and a remarkable turnaround to some long awaited good news from the decidedly negative outlook earlier this year.

This budget represents an increase of some $750 million above the Obama Administration’s proposed NASA budget allocation of $18.5 Billion for Fiscal Year 2016, and an increase of more than $1.2 Billion over the enacted budget for FY 2015.

Space enthusiasts worldwide should rejoice at this tremendously positive budget news for NASA – which enables the agency to move forward with its core agenda of human spaceflight, robotic exploration, and science and technology research and development programs.

The Federal spending bill first passed the House by an overwhelming vote of 316 to 113. It then moved to the Senate where it passed easily by a vote of 65 to 33, in one of the final acts of Congress this year before they adjourn for the Christmas holiday season. President Obama announced he will sign the bill.

After a contentious year of high states political brinkmanship that could easily have ended in another government shutdown this week, the US Congress and the Obama White House did the nearly unimaginable and decided to strike a compromise and pass the omnibus spending bill for the 2016 Fiscal Year that funds the government and NASA for the remainder of this year’s budget season through September 2015.

Committees in both chambers passed bills earlier this year with much less funding for NASA and far different space exploration priorities compared to President Obama. The outlook for the entire Federal budget changed mightily in the past two months under the new House speaker, Republican Paul Ryan who replaced outgoing Speaker John Boehner.

Under the newly passed Fiscal Year 2016 NASA Budget, virtually all of the agency’s programs benefit with either full or added funding.

The SLS, Orion, Commercial Crew and Planetary Sciences among others are all big beneficiaries of the omnibus budget compromise.

Sending humans to Mars by the 2030s is NASA’s agency-wide goal as announced by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

To accomplish the ‘Journey to Mars’ initiative, NASA is developing the mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket and the state of the art Orion deep space crew capsule.

The SLS is one of the bigggest winners. SLS will receive $2 Billion in the FY 2016 budget, compared to an Obama Administration request of only $1.36 billion that was actually a cut from the prior year. This new total represents a nearly 50% increase and is also above earlier House and Senate bills.

The SLS will be the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen starting with its first liftoff. It will propel our astronauts on journey’s further into space than ever before.

Blastoff of the first SLS heavy lift booster (SLS-1) carrying an unmanned test version of NASA’s Orion crew capsule is targeted for no later than November 2018.

The maiden SLS test flight with the uncrewed Orion is called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and will launch from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

The bill also directs NASA to use $85 million of the SLS funding to develop a new, enhanced cryogenic upper stage to replace the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (from the Delta IV rocket) that currently will be utilized on SLS-1.

NASA needs the enhanced upper stage to carry out future manned missions with Orion to deep space destinations like the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.

NASA had been marching towards an August 2021 liftoff for the maiden crewed Orion on a test flight dubbed Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2). But in August, the agency announced that EM-2 could slip two years from 2021 to 2023 due to a variety of budget and technical issues.

So the 2016 budget plus up could aid NASA significantly in trying to maintain the still officially targeted 2021 launch date.

NASA’s other human spaceflight pillar, namely the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) to develop a pair of human rated ‘space taxis’ to transport our astronauts to the low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) is also a big beneficiary.

The goal of CCP is to end the US sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz manned capsule at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars and to restore the US Human spaceflight capability to launch our astronauts on American rockets from American soil.

For the first time in its five year history, CCP will receive the full funding requested by the Obama Administration – in the amount of $1.244 Billion. Whereas earlier markups by both the House and Senate had cut CCP funding to $1 Billion or below.

Under CCP awards announced by Bolden in September 2014, NASA had contracted Boeing to develop the CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX to develop the Crew Dragon.

Bolden had made it completely clear to Congress that any reduced funding would have forced NASA into slowing the program with another substantial delay in first launch now targeted for 2017, by renegotiating the CCP contracts with both Boeing and SpaceX and delaying completion of the required milestones.

“It would upend the investments we need to execute contracts with Boeing and SpaceX to return the launches of American astronauts to American soil and to do it by 2017,” wrote Bolden in his NASA blog.

NASA’a Planetary Sciences Division also gets a much earned and much needed big budget boost. The omnibus bill affords $1.631 billion for Planetary exploration. This amounts to an increase of some $270 million above the Obama administration’s request – which has repeatedly cut of one of NASA’s crown jewels.

Congress has had the good sense to save the long lived and very scientifically productive Opportunity MER rover and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) missions from certain termination – due only to a ridiculous lack of money that was “zeroed out” by the White House.

The omnibus bill also appropriates $175 million for NASA planned mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa in the early 202os. It includes funding for both an orbiter and lander. Europa is a prime target in the search for life.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Congressional Slashes to NASA Commercial Crew Force Bolden to ‘Buy Russian’ rather than ‘Buy American’

In the face of drastic funding cuts by the US Congress to NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) aimed at restoring America’s indigenous launch capability to fly our astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is being forced to spend another half a billion dollars for seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft instead […]