This afternoon, NASA announced a new commercial space initiative that could mirror the successes demonstrated by partnerships fostered through the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and Commercial Crew Program agreements. Called the Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC), the new initiative is meant to expand human presence into the solar system and surface of Mars to advance exploration, science, innovation, benefits to humanity and international collaboration. Read more about CCSC here.
Not only have public-private partnerships secured a cargo supply line to our greatest asset in low-Earth orbit, the International Space Station, the agency also intends to certify and use commercial systems to fly astronauts from U.S. soil to the station and back.
Astronauts take personal mementos with them into space to help mark the occasion. The tradition started in 1961 when Gus Grissom stashed a roll of dimes in his Mercury flight suit. Since then, personal and historic items – all very small and lightweight – have made trips into space, some going as far as landing on the moon with the Apollo astronauts. What would you take with you into space? What would you take for a friend?
The Apollo spacecraft and space shuttle (pictured) epitomized the space travel technology of their day. The next generation of American spacecraft to carry people into orbit will include numerous features and functions built with the most advanced techniques the aerospace industry has devised. If you were building your own spacecraft, what modern-day technologies would you incorporate?
The goal of CCP is to aid in the development and then use of privately operated space transportation systems that can safely, reliably and cost-effectively carry NASA astronauts and others to low-Earth orbit.
The Commercial Crew Program closely follows the model of NASA’s successful Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS, which oversaw development and operations of two privately operated, American-owned spacecraft and launcher systems to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. SpaceX’s Dragon and Falcon 9 combination, and Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus and Antares system were developed under the COTS effort and both are now operational.
NASA engineers are closely working with aerospace industry engineers to identify potential design problems early and fix them.
Private companies are allowed more latitude than ever before to come up with innovations in design and manufacturing that ultimately will make space travel less expensive and more accessible for everyone.
The development of one or more new spacecraft could generate a new industry for aerospace companies as the final frontier is opened up to the general public through increasingly lower prices to fly into space.
NASA funded part of the development of this new generation of spacecraft, but the companies themselves are required to offer their own significant financial investment.
The Commercial Crew Program pays companies only when they meet specific benchmarks in design, testing and development.
Three companies are working with NASA through funded agreements to advance designs of their spacecraft to a point where they could be manufactured and operated: Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX. A fourth company, Blue Origin, is partnered with NASA under an unfunded agreement, which means NASA offers its expert oversight, but is not paying the company directly for milestones.
Companies were not told what kind of spacecraft to build nor what rocket to launch it on. NASA only set out the goals for transportation systems, giving established aerospace companies and start-ups an equal chance to develop their own unique ideas.
The next generation of spacecraft is required to have a launch abort system that can lift the spacecraft and its human crew out of harm’s way during launch and ascent into orbit. The companies are free to design the system they think will best execute that goal, which has led to innovations in engine type, thruster placement and computer guidance and control.
If every journey begins with a single step, then NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will provide critical footwork as America pushes its boundaries for human exploration deep into space. With CCP and aerospace industry partners covering the area between Earth and the International Space Station, NASA can turn more of its research capabilities and resources to solving the most daunting problems of deep-space travel for humans.
The path to America’s near-future in space travel runs through destinations that didn’t exist even 20 years ago, steered by an innovative NASA initiative that is itself only in its fourth year.
Boeing’s Chris Ferguson, who commanded the space shuttle’s last mission, took to the controls inside a CST-100 simulator in January to show NASA engineers that the software will allow a human to take control of the spacecraft at any point in a mission following the CST-100’s separation from its booster. Called a pilot-in-the-loop demonstration, the accomplishment was performed in Houston to mark a milestone for the company under its Commercial Crew integrated Capability contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
All four of NASA’s industry partners in the Commercial Crew Program are proceeding in the development of their own unique designs for spacecraft that could carry crews to low-Earth orbit. You can find out details about new milestones met during December and January here, plus what commercial achievements mean to the nation’s goal of returning humans to orbit on American spacecraft launched from U.S. soil.
CCP’s industry partners continue to make great strides as they design the next-generation of human spacecraft. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk released this photo yesterday of the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that will launch the SpaceX-3 cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. The unusual feature is the landing legs on the side of the rocket. According to Musk, they are 60 feet in diameter. He said the booster will still land in the ocean, but will attempt what’s known as a soft landing instead of simply plummeting as such stages have done until now. The exception is the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters which parachuted into the water and were recovered for reuse. Musk has said before that his goal is to bring the spent first stage back to a soft landing on a runway or similar facility so the booster and its 9 engines can be used again. Musk ended his posts saying the company needs to prove precision control of the stage throughout the deceleration from hypersonic to subsonic speeds. There is no word whether this innovation is anticipated for crew-carrying missions as it is clearly early in the test phases of development.
Getting a spacecraft away from a rocket in a launch emergency is one of the toughest tasks handed to spacecraft designers and engineers. We talked in 2012 with some of the NASA managers, engineers and designers who were working through some of the challenges and potential solutions for Commercial Crew Program projects here. These systems will see critical tests coming up this year.