NASA’s Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative has, for the last couple years, been facilitating industry’s development of an integrated American-made crew transportation system (CTS) to fill the void left by the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet in 2011. By investing in three companies (Sierra Nevada, Boeing, and SpaceX) to develop the next low-Earth orbit crew transport, NASA will have three commercial vehicles to choose from, and the space agency is expected to award a big money contract for ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station to one, or more, of those three companies very soon, with the goal being returning human spaceflight capability back to the United States by 2017.
Boeing, which is developing the CST-100 space capsule, has completed 18 of 20 milestones under their CCiCap agreement, and the company is scheduled to complete the last two milestones later this summer (Critical Design Review and Phase 2 Spacecraft Safety Review). ULA is ready to break ground this September at Cape Canaveral’s Atlas Space Launch Complex-41 for construction of Boeing’s CST-100 crew access tower (CST-100, if selected for a CCtCap award by NASA this summer, is expected to make its maiden orbital flight atop a ULA Atlas-V rocket).
SpaceX has completed 13 of 18 milestones thus far, and recently requested (and was given) a CCiCap extension by NASA, giving the company much more time from August 2014 to complete work associated with remaining flight testing (in-flight abort test and pad abort test). Sierra Nevada has been granted a CCiCap extension to March 2015 as well, so they can complete a second unmanned autonomous flight test with their Dream Chaser test article (10 of 13 milestones completed).
SpaceX has fallen behind schedule with regard to their very important CCiCap Milestone 13 Integrated Critical Design Review (ICDR), and because of that the company received approval from NASA this past spring to split the ICDR into four new separate milestones in their CCiCap agreement, a move NASA spokesperson Rachel Kraft earlier this week said was made, “after many informative discussions about milestone content and criteria.”
For all that SpaceX has accomplished since 2008—developing and manufacturing their own rockets and unmanned autonomous dragons, becoming the first commercial company to launch a spacecraft into orbit and return it to Earth, securing a $1.6 billion contract to resupply the ISS for NASA, and launching payloads to orbit for commercial customers—SpaceX has not been without its share of problems.
SpaceX contracted or planned for 24 Falcon-9 flights through 2013, but only flew seven. The company lists nearly 30 flights for this year and next, yet have only flown three times in 2014, and have nearly four times more launches on the calendar for the rest of the year than they have currently been able to fly in 2014.
They are also falling behind in fulfilling their CRS commitments to NASA in both time and payload mass. Currently, SpaceX has launched only three CRS missions but is over 77 percent into the contract period. Of the 20 mT it is to launch by the original deadline of 2015, now 2017, SpaceX has put only 15 percent of that—3,028 kg (6,676 lbs)—into orbit, leaving 16,692 kg (36,799 lbs).
Additionally, recent news reports have shown that an epidemic of anomalies have occurred during SpaceX launches or launch attempts, including multiple helium leaks, loss of capsule control, multiple thruster issues such as Draco thrusters either freezing-up or outright failing, avionics issues, capsule contamination issues, and three consecutive seawater intrusions on all three ISS Cargo Resupply (CRS) missions. With that said, the problems with Dragon in-flight are less with each mission flown.
The company’s recently unveiled Dragon 2 (which is based very much on the unmanned Dragon 1) is intended to ferry human beings instead of cargo to and from the ISS. SpaceX is also leasing the historic launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center to launch their crewed Dragon missions, and it is hard to imagine NASA leasing 39A to a company which the agency does not intend to award an ISS crew transport contract to.
“NASA approved SpaceX’s request to split some content from its Integrated Critical Design Review (Milestone 13) to two, resulting in Milestone 13A and 13B,” said Kraft. “More recently, NASA approved SpaceX’s request to shift some content from Milestone 13A to two new milestones, Milestone 13C and 13D, along with commensurate funding. SpaceX has completed the newly formed Milestone 13A. Milestones 13B, 13C and 13D are planned for later this year. None of the original milestone content was removed from the agreement, just shifted among the milestones, nor was any content added to the agreement.”
The new milestones under SpaceX’s CCiCap agreement with NASA, all split up from the original Milestone 13, are as follows:
- MILESTONE 13A — Qualification test for the primary structure of the Dragon spacecraft (completed)
- MILESTONE 13B — Ground Systems and Mission Operations Critical Design Review
- MILESTONE 13C — Crew Vehicle Technical Interchange Meetings
- MILESTONE 13D — Delta Crew Vehicle Critical Design Review
Originally, the current phase of CCiCap milestones were to be completed by mid 2014 ahead of the next round of CCtCap awards by NASA, but now SpaceX has until March 2015 to complete the remaining milestones outlined in their CCiCap agreement, all the while NASA still intends to announce which company, or companies, they will award a CCtCap award and contract to very soon. Originally scheduled to be completed between December 2013 and April 2014, the company now expects to complete Milestone 11 Pad Abort Test and Milestones 13B, 13C and 13D by the end of 2014. Milestone 14, the In-Flight Abort Test, is not expected to be completed until March 2015.
“While the Integrated Critical Design Review and the abort tests are all part of SpaceX’s overall development effort, the rationale for NASA’s approval for modifying the dates of the Pad Abort Test and the In-flight Abort Test was independent of the modifications to the Integrated CDR milestone (Milestone 13),” said Kraft. “Rushing these tests would have compromised the results and potentially impacted safety. NASA (and SpaceX) want these tests to be of high quality with the results representative of real abort scenarios, thus NASA granted the SpaceX’s request for the new dates.”
NASA is expected to announce which company, or companies, the space agency will award to advance with the final phase of the Commercial Crew Program, known as Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap), by September, which will pave the way to the final lap toward launching U.S. astronauts from American soil once more by 2017.
Check back regularly for updates.