FleaPlus writes: This week the White House issued a veto threat over the Commerce/Justice/Science spending bill currently being debated by the House of Representatives, in large part due to its cut to commercial crew funding. The current House bill decreases NASA's overall budget and commercial crew spending while increasing spending on the shuttle-legacy SLS rocket. Language in the House bill also tells NASA to end the ongoing milestone-based competitive development in the commercial crew program, and to instead switch to a single provider using 'traditional government procurement methods.'
FleaPlus writes: At a talk at the National Press Club, SpaceX's Elon Musk revealed the company's plans for making their Falcon 9 rocket fully reusable. A rendering depicts the first stage, upper stage, and Dragon capsule all separately returning to the Earth's surface and making a controlled rocket-powered landing. During the next few years SpaceX will be testing VTVL maneuvers and reusability with their Falcon 9-based 'Grasshopper' testbed, with up to 70 test launches per year. Musk stated that if reuse is successful it would result in a 100x reduction in their already-low launch costs, a key step towards Musk's long-term aim of lowering the price of a ticket to Mars to $500K.
FleaPlus writes: Besides using the SpaceX Dragon capsule to deliver supplies to the ISS this year and astronauts in following years, the company wants to use Dragon as a platform for propulsively landing science payloads on Mars and other planets. Combined with their upcoming Falcon Heavy rocket, 'a single Dragon mission could land with more payload than has been delivered to Mars cumulatively in history.' According to CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX is working with NASA's Ames Research Center on a mission design concept that could launch in as early as 5-6 years.
FleaPlus writes: Continuing last year's successful CCDev (Commercial Crew Development) program, NASA has selected 4 companies to receive "CCDev2" seed funding for commercial crew systems. The companies will only receive money if they meet development and testing milestones in the next year, with up to $75M to SpaceX for developing their sidemount escape system and testing their Dragon capsule, $92M to Boeing for developing their CST-100 capsule, $80M to Sierra Nevada Corp.'s DreamChaser top-mounted spaceplane, and $22M for Blue Origin's capsule and pusher escape system.
FleaPlus writes: The BBC reports that the space agencies of Europe, Russia, and the US are in (very) preliminary discussions about a potential collaborative mission where astronauts would assemble a small spacecraft at the ISS, then fly it around the Moon and back. This is somewhat similar to previously-proposed commercial missions, with many elements adapted from spacecraft systems already in existence. This would also be a testbed for eventual asteroid and Mars missions, which would likely require modules to be launched on multiple rockets and assembled in space.
FleaPlus writes: NASA is spending a total of $475,000, split between Masten Space Systems and John Carmack's Armadillo Aerospace, for a series of seven test flights of the companies' reusable suborbital rockets over the next several months, going to altitudes as high as 25 miles. NASA's goal is to foster a more cost-effective and flexible way to conduct microgravity and upper-atmosphere research. Jeff Bezos's suborbital spaceflight company Blue Origin has also been making steady progress this year on their $3.7M contract to test pusher-escape system and composite pressure vessel technologies, which NASA is interested in for orbital spaceflight.
FleaPlus writes: At the recent Joint Propulsion Conference, SpaceX's rocket development facility director Tom Markusic unveiled conceptual plans for how its current Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 commercial rockets can be evolved into heavy-lift rockets, ranging from a Falcon X capable of lifting 38,000kg to orbit, up to a 140,000kg Falcon XX (more than either the Saturn V or the 75,000kg shuttle-derived rocket Congress currently plans on having NASA spend >$13B building). SpaceX presentations also discuss a new Merlin 2 heavy-lift engine, solar-electric cargo tugs, adapting their current engines for descent/ascent vehicles fueled by Mars-derived methane, and a desire for the government to take the lead on in-space nuclear thermal propulsion while commercial focuses on launchers. In a recent interview, SpaceX CEO/CTO Elon Musk expressed his goal of lowering the price of Mars transportation enough to enable early colonization in 20 years, and his own plans for retiring to Mars.
FleaPlus writes: Although commercial launch providers have been used for all US national security and unmanned science missions since the 1990s, plans by the White House and NASA to do the same for crewed missions are facing continued problems in Congress. While the White House originally sought $3.3B over 3 years to jump-start commercial crew vehicle development by multiple providers like SpaceX, Boeing, and the United Launch Alliance, the current bill in the House would cut this amount to $150M. The House bill would put the removed money from commercial crew and technology development towards $13.2B in development costs for a government-operated shuttle-derived launcher and crew capsule. The White House, SpaceX, and others have offered tentative support for a Senate bill which would put 3-year commercial crew funding at $1.3B.
FleaPlus writes: Six weeks after the first launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, the first stage of the second rocket has finishing production/testing, and has arrived at Cape Canaveral for a launch as early as September, depending on the pace of a methodical review of the Dragon capsule systems and minor rocket modifications/fixes being made based on data from the inaugural launch. The rocket will launch the first operational unmanned Dragon cargo/crew spacecraft into orbit, where it will perform tests and then reenter off the California coast. CEO/CTO Elon Musk made the intriguing remark that Dragon's heat shield is strong enough to enable a return not only from Earth orbit, but also lunar orbit or Mars velocities as well.
FleaPlus writes: The German Aerospace Center is planning to launch a novel reusable spacecraft in 2011, incorporating flat damage-resistant tiles. Nitrogen will be pumped through the porous tiles, creating a protective gas layer that actively cools and shields the hottest parts of the spacecraft from the searing heat of reentry. The 12.5M-euro unmanned 'SHEFEX II' project is a major technological step towards the team's eventual goal of a reusable space glider which will be cheaper and easier-to-build than NASA's space shuttle.
FleaPlus writes: NASA has announced three new 'Centennial Challenge' technology prizes totaling $5M, awarded via competitions to achieve technological goals important to NASA: The $2M Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge for launching small satellites (at least 1kg) into orbit twice in one week, the $1.5M Night Rover Challenge for demonstrating a rover capable of storing and using solar energy over day/night cycles, and the $1.5M Sample Return Robot Challenge for a robot capable of locating and retrieving identifiable geologic samples in varied terrain without human control or GPS. This is in addition to the ongoing Strong Tether, Power Beaming, and Green Flight Challenges. The White House is currently seeking to boost funding for Centennial Challenges and other NASA technology programs, although many in Congress have other plans.
FleaPlus writes: Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation are drafting a bill (due this week) which slashes NASA technology development/demonstrations, commercial space transportation, and new robotic missions to a small fraction of what the White House proposed earlier this year. The bill would instead redirect NASA funds to 'immediate' development of a government-designed heavy lift rocket, although it's still unclear if NASA can afford a heavy lifter in the long term or if (with the new technology the Senators seek to cut like in-space refueling) it actually needs such a rocket. The Senators' rocket design dictates a payload of 75mT to orbit, uses the existing Ares contracts and Shuttle infrastructure as much as possible, and forces use of the solid rocket motors produced by Utah arms manufacturer ATK.
FleaPlus writes: Following up on a story a few days ago about an unmanned Russian cargo ship's initial aborted attempt at docking with the International Space Station, the vehicle made a second pass on July 4 which succeeded. Russian engineers believe the initial abort was triggered when the (normally reliable) Progress spacecraft detected interference between a remote control system on the ISS and the Progress's camera, and successfully docked on the 2nd try by using the autonomous system instead.
FleaPlus writes: Boeing has released a number of new details on the development of their CST-100 manned space capsule being developed in collaboration with commercial space station builder Bigelow Aerospace. Competing with SpaceX's Dragon capsule, the vehicle is designed to be compatible with existing Atlas V, Delta IV, and Falcon 9 rockets, and is planned to carry 7 people in a capsule 'a little smaller than Orion, but a little bigger than Apollo.' Funding was jump-started this year with $18M of fixed-price Commercial Crew Development funding from NASA, which requires completion of several fabrication and demonstration milestones this year (heat shield, escape system, landing tests, etc.) in order to get the full payment.
FleaPlus writes: Following up on the successful first launch of their Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX has signed a $492M deal for launching several dozen satellites for the Iridium NEXT constellation, the biggest commercial launch deal ever (teleconference notes). This is a needed boost for the US launch industry, which has dwindled to a fraction of the international market due to problematic ITAR arms regulations and high costs. SpaceX's next launch is scheduled for later this summer, carrying the first full version of the Dragon reusable capsule, which will run tests in orbit and then splashdown off the California coast.