Two Companies…One Program

Some time ago, NASA down-selected from three would be providers to two for Commercial Crew…the upcoming ability for the U.S. to transport astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station. Some folks would have preferred a down-select to just one…Boeing, who publically announced that if they weren’t selected they’d end development on their spacecraft and lay off all the workers and engineers on the project. The contending products or technologies were the Apollo-like space capsules of Boeing and SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada’s space plane.

Powerful committee leaders in Congress insisted on Boeing as one of the approved contractors in order to protect their failing status quo. They hoped that the burgeoning New Space momentum would be forced to return to the three-way backscratching club between procurement officials, politicians, and contractors that rules the military-style cost-plus contracting paradigm of previous decades. New Space got a partial victory, with New Space king and commercial resupply contractor, SpaceX, being selected alongside the more traditional contractor Boeing. The other New Space company, Sierra Nevada, retained their Space Act Agreement contract for technical cooperation from NASA, but were stripped of Commercial Crew funding due to not being selected to go forward. That did not end their ambitions however, and they did some work on the commercial side with Virgin Galactic’s AstroLaunch and later went on to win a six flight contract for the second phase of NASA’s ISS Commercial resupply program, with their first demonstration flight scheduled for next year.

Experience was one of the reasons listed for Boeing being selected instead of Sierra Nevada for Commercial Crew, but that experience seems to come with a little bit of a diva attitude, too much political power in Washington, and a yearning for the good old days of low-risk access to the obscene quantities of taxpayer money that comes with cost-plus contracts.

Through the years, as the program progressed and SpaceX and Boeing developed their respective spacecraft, Boeing got more into the swing of things by planning future flights with technology partner and space station designer Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow has two experimental space stations already in orbit and a smaller demonstration “closet” module attached to the ISS. Their business has had to sit in somewhat of a holding pattern as they waited for commercial space to catch up and provide human-lift capability so that they could go forward with their plans for space hotels and what not.

During development, SpaceX and Boeing both struggled through schedule delays, funding shortfalls from Congress, paperwork jungles, extra safety requirements, parachute problems, and costly redesign mandates from NASA. These things combined to lengthen the calendar and increase the costs of the program to SpaceX and Boeing…which, under fixed-price contracting, were not reimbursed by the government. Engineers are paid salaries, and this means that delays cause very real cost overruns. So, Congress cutting back on the yearly outlay of money, causing the schedule to stretch out, also causes costs to go up. They basically tried to starve out the program.

The already higher priced Boeing whined for, and received, more money. SpaceX complained but took it in stride. They had other funding sources to draw on and a long-range plan outside of NASA that depended on the continued progress of their Dragon spacecraft. The very reason that Elon Musk founded the company has always been to settle humans on Mars. NASA’s help and stamp of approval serve merely as a means to that end.

SpaceX aced their un-crewed flight test, but later accidentally destroyed that capsule during a ground test of the built-in escape rockets…which resulted in another schedule slip and a different fuel valve design for that system. SpaceX will launch the much awaited first operational flight of the Commercial Crew Program in the spring of this year (currently scheduled for May 7th, 2020). This year also marks the 20th year of crewed operations aboard the ISS.

Yes. People have lived in space for 20 years on the ISS as of this coming November 2nd.

Not only does it look like SpaceX will be the first commercial enterprise to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station, but they recently announced arrangements for two space tourism flights using the Dragon capsule to carry a hand-full of folks to space. One of these will ride the Dragon on a three day or so cruise out to an orbit roughly twice as high as the ISS…arranged by the Virginia based space tourism company Space Adventures. The other, arranged by the Texas based space station manufacturer Axiom Space, will tour the International Space Station for ten days in the style of what Space Adventures used to do with the Russian Soyuz. So if you have $55 Million burning a hole in your pocket they’ll take you on the vacation of a lifetime.

In addition to that, SpaceX has been working toward #DearMoon, in which they intend to fly eight people to the Moon and back aboard a ginormous, fully reusable rocket that SpaceX has under development to someday replace their Dragon capsule and Falcon 9/Falcon Heavy booster. They just completed their twentieth cargo delivery to the International Space Station and retired their first Dragon capsule design because the new one will be used for both crewed and un-crewed flights to the station.

Boeing partially failed their un-crewed flight test. NASA ended up calling that flight’s problems a “high-profile near miss” because they could of twice resulted in the loss of the spacecraft. Boeing’s Booster, ULA’s overly expensive Atlas V, did its job perfectly as it always does. However, once in orbit a software glitch in the capsule (that should have been discovered during testing on the ground) caused the mission elapsed timer to read 11 or so hours off so the robotics sequence kicked in the wrong maneuvers. A temporary communications glitch complicated efforts by ground crews to detect and correct this problem until the off-schedule maneuvers used up so much fuel that the capsule would never be able to chase down the Space Station. With a stay at the ISS no longer on the calendar, they prepared to de-orbit the capsule early…but then discovered another software glitch that could have caused the spacecraft to be damaged beyond its ability to safely reenter Earth’s atmosphere and land.

The capsule did land safely, but last week the results of the investigation into the flight’s uncovered 61 issues that would need to be addressed before the capsule could fly again. Also, a full end-to-end software review will be performed, with NASA engineers looking over Boeing’s shoulder to make sure they do it right. How all of that goes down in the end will decide whether or not Boeing has to fly another un-crewed test flight…and who gets to pay the extra cost for it.

Meanwhile, all that schedule slippage has forced NASA to have to buy another seat on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to continue to fill their slots on the station…as political ties between the two countries continue to erode. They also extended SpaceX’s first crewed test flight into a partial full-length mission in order to further fill gaps in the schedule. This may have also pushed the schedule downstream a little bit more to train those astronauts to stay aloft longer.

Photo by Pixabay on

The non-NASA missions that SpaceX and Boeing have planned follow the spirit of not only the Commercial Crew program, but also of Space Act Agreements. Commercial Crew effectively spins-off crewed spaceflight so that someone other than the governments of large nations have human access to space. Under this paradigm, the company who builds the spacecraft owns it, splits the development costs with NASA, and pursues other work with it to make money from other customers besides just the United States government. However, one cannot help but watch this unfold and think that Boeing still isn’t really into the spirit of this whole fixed-price contracting thing. The Space Launch System program has been going over that same period…even longer if you regard it as an extension of the “cancelled” Constellation program. As it currently sits, that project was recently dubbed 30% over it’s Absolute Baseline Commitment to Congress for their cost-plus contract.

I know that bringing up the SLS is a bit topic stretch for this post, but it is still Boeing and sheds some light on where they are as a mindset. As with their Commercial Crew effort, if Congress suddenly decided to cut off the funds, then Boeing would immediately scrap the project, lay off all the workers, and go home. SpaceX would shrug their shoulders and slog on because their ambitions, like Sierra Nevada’s, are derived from goals that are longer range and much broader than just making money off thr government.

All in all, the Commercial Crew Program has been bruised but not broken. Silly Congressional attempts to starve this program to death and try and use the very expensive SLS/Orion to serve the International Space Station have failed miserably and embarrassed them in the end. When asked why we’re still paying the Russian space agency ROSCosmos to fly U.S., Canadian, and Japanese astronauts to the ISS, you need only point a finger to certain legislators who kept cutting the Commercial Crew budget to make more room for their big, white dodo bird SLS that STILL won’t fly until the end of next year.

And…this just in. The above Answers with Joe video might now be obsolete as the new director of human space flight at NASA, Doug Loverro seems to intend to lop the LOP-G off the front of the program and push it to the back…to match Boeing’s bid details for Artemis.

Interesting times.


~ by Bill Housley on March 12, 2020.

%d bloggers like this: