Cargo’s final frontier

After a series of delays involving modifications to command software, commercial firm Space Exploration Technologies finally launched its Dragon cargo spacecraft from Florida on May 22. A planned May 7 launch date, already pushed back from dates in February and April, resulted in nothing more than a “static fire test” of the rocket engines on the launch pad. On May 19, launch officials found an engine glitch seconds before liftoff. But Dragon is now on its way, carrying a genuine payload of cargo. If this  commercial venture succeeds, a new freight mode must be added to the traditional cargo roster of road, rail, air and water.

The moment is significant, and so hotly awaited, because Dragon is the first privately owned and operated spacecraft to carry out such a mission. Dragon was expected to dock with the International Space Station to unload its cargo three or four days after launch.

The U.S. government decided several years back that “routine” transportation to low-Earth orbit, if anything in space can be described that way — tasks such as supplying the ISS and launching satellites — should be doled out to contractors. This meant the Space Shuttle program, with its increasingly high maintenance costs, could be retired, and NASA could move on to develop the systems needed for exploring, and perhaps later mining, Mars and the asteroid belt.

The ISS, essentially a $100 billion research lab co-owned and operated by the U.S., Canada, Russia, Japan and Europe, is the biggest piece of hardware in space, weighing 360 tonnes. Orbiting about 390 kilometers above the Earth, it can accommodate six crew members; many scientific experiments take place on board in zero gravity. The shuttles played a key role in building and replenishing the ISS.

When the Atlantis returned to Earth for the last time in July 2011, the 30-year shuttle program came to an end, briefly leaving other nationalities in charge of resupplying the station. The European Space Agency sends up periodic Automated Transfer Vehicles via its Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana. The latest to make the journey, ATV-3, delivered 7.2 tonnes of key supplies in March; it was the largest shipment to date. The one-trip ATVs burn up on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, as do Japanese supply capsules. A fourth ATV is currently under construction.

Russian Soyuz spacecraft make regular departures to the ISS from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with replacement crew and supplies. A Russian cargo spacecraft, Progress M-14M, made its final journey in April as scheduled, undocking from the ISS to conduct scientific experiments and falling into the Pacific Ocean nine days later. Progress freighters have completed more than 130 space missions of various types in the past 40 years, with only one failure.

In line with the long-term U.S. strategy of using private-sector spacecraft to help keep the ISS supplied, NASA awarded contracts worth a combined $3.6 billion back in 2008 to two private aerospace firms under its Commercial Resupply Services program. Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp., of Dulles, Va., were contracted to haul 20 tonnes of cargo to the Space Station through 2016. SpaceX will make 12 flights with its Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft, while Orbital’s Antares and Cygnus spacecraft will undertake eight flights.

Ever since completing a maiden flight in December 2010, SpaceX has worked toward launching Dragon into low-Earth orbit. While in space, a robotic arm carrying a 521-kilogram payload of food, other consumables and non-critical equipment will reach out to grab the ISS, and astronauts onboard the station will offload the cargo. The plan is for Dragon to remain attached to the ISS for several weeks before returning to Earth with a 660-kilogram payload, far beyond the capacity of the Soyuz capsules. The craft will then splash down in the Pacific in order to be recovered. SpaceX ultimately intends to develop a thruster system that will allow Dragon to return to a spaceport. In two to three years, the system will be further developed so that astronauts can be transported too, a role only the Russians can currently fulfill.

NASA is so far reported to have invested $380 million in SpaceX under a separate funding program, Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, while the company and its external investors have put in around $700 million. Elon Musk, the company’s chief executive and chief designer, recently addressed a media conference about the impending flight.

“This is a test flight, and we may not succeed in getting all the way to the Space Station,” he said. “I think we’ve got a pretty good shot, but it’s important to acknowledge that a lot can go wrong.

“The Space Station is going around the Earth at 17,000 mph, 12 times faster than a bullet from an assault rifle, and you’ve got to be tracking it to within inches for rendezvous,” he continued.

The second commercial party, Orbital, is a few months behind the SpaceX schedule, but hopes to testfire its Antares rocket this summer, followed by a demonstration mission to the ISS with the Cygnus capsule attached in the fourth quarter. Its launch site is the NASA operated Wallops Island facility near Washington, D.C.; the first live CRS mission is currently planned for early next year. The company’s three-part system for CRS comprises Antares, Cygnus and a pressurized cargo module developed by Orbital’s industrial partner, Thales Alenia Space. With this equipment, Orbital will be able to deliver up to 2,700 kilograms of pressurized cargo to the ISS. The single-use system will pick up waste from the station and burn up on reentry.

Antares will put satellites and other payloads into a variety of low-Earth and geosynchronous transfer orbits. Orbital is offering this facility to civil government, military and intelligence, and commercial customers, and has a 10-launch backlog.

A number of other private concerns are in the long-term mix to fly people and cargo into space. XCOR Aerospace and Virgin Galactic were among seven companies chosen by NASA in August 2011 to receive two years of financial support for further research into delivering cargo, initially to the edge of space, on reusable vehicles. NASA’s aim is to be able to draw from a wider pool of companies for payload integration and flight services. The seven firms are sharing $10 million of seed funding via the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Flight Opportunities program.

XCOR, based in Mojave, Calif., has spent the last seven years developing the Lynx, a piloted, two-seat, fully reusable rocket-powered vehicle that takes off and lands horizontally. The company, backed by high-profile investors, including top Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and former venture capitalists, aims to make a short debut test flight later this year or in early 2013.

“Over the following 12-to-18 months, we will gradually expand the envelope of flight until we are performing the full mission profile,” explains the company’s Mike Massee. The Lynx Mark I prototype vehicle is designed to achieve an altitude of 61 kilometers. “This is generally recognized, in civilian terms, as the edge of space, and 99.9999 percent of Earth’s atmosphere is below you,” Massee says.

The first production model, Lynx Mark II, will be able to reach 100 kilometers and will service both the suborbital tourism market and scientific/commercial markets. Envisioned to enter service by 2015 or 2016, it will be FAA- /AST-licensed and will operate like an aircraft up to four times per day. It will initially fly from Mojave Air and Space Port, in clear weather only on visual flight rules — in practice, it can operate through any licensed spaceport with a 2,400-meter runway.

The spacecraft is designed for low-cost operation, with the capability of a full turnaround in as little as two hours. The craft will also be available for wet lease. It can carry small payloads in its pressurized cabin. A later Mark III version will additionally carry an external dorsal pod with a payload capacity for experimental apparatus of 650 kilograms. The Lynx family of vehicles will offer the opportunity for research and scientific missions, private spaceflight, and micro-satellite launch.

XCOR has a $60 million plus backlog of orders for Lynx suborbital vehicles, flights on Lynx, and its reusable rocket engines. Its longer-term objective is a two-stage orbital system that is large enough to deliver people or payloads to the ISS or other space stations. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is the only crewed suborbital vehicle in flight test today; it was developed from SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 claimed the $10 million Ansari X Prize as the world’s first privately developed manned spacecraft. Vehicles now being built for Virgin Galactic by Mojave-based Scaled Composites will carry up to six customers on sub-orbital space flights from the operator’s future headquarters at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic’s two-vehicle system involves a mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, carrying a suborbital spaceship, SpaceShipTwo, to an altitude of 50,000 feet before releasing it to fire its rocket engine and fly to space. The company is testing the vehicles both mated together on “captive carry” flights and on glide flights, where SpaceShipTwo is released to fly free, as will happen on commercial flights.

William Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Galactic, says passenger seats can be removed for research flights, but the near-term ambition is to offer the research community longer periods of microgravity than it can get from current drop towers or parabolic flights.

NASA has so far chartered one full flight of SpaceShipTwo, with options for two additional flights. The craft is not designed to reach orbit, so it could not deliver cargo. But Pomerantz says Virgin Galactic and its founder, Sir Richard Branson, are targeting orbital flights as something for the future.

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