AdminCadet: Here is a very interesting Houston Chronicle article on the three commercial crew teams, Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada, who are battling each other for “the prize” – to build a vehicle to safely ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station and act as an emergency return vehicle if needed (see photos below).
Quote from the article: “NASA should make its decision on the “commercial crew” competition in the next few weeks. At stake is not just a $4 billion contract, but prestige. The next spacecraft that flies U.S. astronauts will have an American flag, yes, but also a prominent corporate logo. That company will also join the elite club – whose only members include the United States, Russia and China – that has flown humans in space.”
I have to say I’m personally torn between these three different designs and am excited to see which one wins (I wish all three could be given the prize to give America “unlike redundancy” but I know our budgets wouldn’t allow this). As an old NASA space cadet, I’ve worked with Boeing for over three decades and sincerely appreciate their capabilities, engineering, and design skills, and their diligence to safety. So a Boeing capsule win would be great. The negative here is we would be going back to a capsule design and would not utilize many of the lessons learned from our three decades of Shuttle flights. I also am interested in SpaceX’s capsule since it is a rush to see Elon Musk’s team work “outside of the box”, doing such things as 3D printing of hardware and their intent to ultimately land their capsule vertically on land. And their cargo flights to Station have been very successful, though I do wonder about some of the failures they have experience which they have not explained to the public (their privilege). This does raise personal concerns about this “quick-acting” company’s adherence to safety, failure analyses, and self-documentation, but I’ll hold judgement and am very willing to see them given their chance. Of course, the comment about Boeing’s capsule is true here too. And, finally, Sierra Nevada’s vehicle is extremely exciting to me because it’s a winged “glide” vehicle like the Shuttle, which NASA flew for 30 years. This third vehicle can benefit greatly from the lessons learned from Shuttle which is a big plus. And I love the idea of its ability to be flown to different orbiting destinations, such as Hubble (though this would take a different launch trajectory than going to Station just like it did for Shuttle). A couple of concerns do arise in my mind with this design. All three vehicles have to stay on the Station, I believe, for a minimum of six months to act as an emergency rescue vehicle. I would think this could mean the Sierra Nevada vehicle’s underside heat shield would be exposed to micro-meteoroid debris (and possible damage) for it’s total docked time especially if it is facing into the velocity vector of the Station. Also, I recall the Shuttle tires had pressure loss issues over time due to exposure to the cold temperatures of space. Will Sierra Nevada’s vehicle have similar issues during its six month? I’m not saying they can’t overcome these potential issues, but that they may need to be addressed.
It is very exciting to see three companies striving for excellence in the realm of human space exploration in this manner. I’m looking forward to a crew vehicle going to and from the Station with an American flag on its side. Kudos to all three. May the best team win.
Article Credit: Houston Chronicle – by Eric Berger – August 10, 2014; updated August 11, 2014. Photo Credits: unknown.