Sierra Nevada Challenges NASA’s Space Taxi Deal With SpaceX, Boeing – OPINION (AND SPECULATION!)

AdminCadet:  First, here is the story – taken from NBC New’s website.  I recommend you glance at this first:

Now for the Opinion/Speculation on my part.  First, let me say that I have no true idea why NASA chose Boeing and SpaceX over Sierra Nevada Corp (SNC) in the bid to design and deliver a US crew transport vehicle to take astronauts to/from Station.  But I can cogitate on it based on my years in the aerospace business as much as anyone.  Second, fortunately or unfortunately, there will probably be nothing that comes out of SCN’s challenge of the final NASA decision.  I personally have never seen any company win such a challenge.  But maybe this will be a first time.  Who knows.

Let’s look at what we do know (you can do this research yourselves – it all comes from Internet searches with my personal comments interspersed throughout):

Boeing Space Operations – It’s design for crew transport to Station is a 5-man capable capsule (with a required launch-abort system) called the CST-100 to be launched on the Atlas V.  Boeing-Space has many many years of crewed space vehicle experience.  They (or their previous incarnation Rockwell) designed and assisted in flying the Space Shuttle for over three decades with all its successes and failures.  They formed United Launch Alliance (ULA) with Lockheed Martin in 2006 as a 50-50 joint venture to provide launch services for the US government using the Atlas V, Delta II, and Delta IV launch vehicles.  While these expendable vehicles are not yet “man-rated”, they or earlier versions of them have supported America’s launch needs for over half a century.  And these launch systems have had excellent mission success.  For example, The Delta II has flown 97 consecutive successful launches to date.  The Atlas V has achieved 100 percent mission success since its debut in 2002 (49 flights) except for an upper stage anomaly due to a leaky valve in 2007 which resulted in leaving a payload in a lower than intended orbit (the customer still deemed the flight a success).  These launch vehicles have also seen continual upgrades and enhancements since they were first launched.  Boeing comes to the table with extensive experience with human space flight and is part of a company that provides very successful launch capability.  Now the negatives – ULA’s large launch systems utilize the Russian built RD-180 engines and, as I’m sure you are aware, things have been “uncomfortable” between the United States and Russia in the recent year.  So ULA has brought in the company Blue Origin to provide a possible replacement to the Russian engines: the BE-4 engine which uses a newer technology than the Russian engines (liquid natural gas as its fuel in combination with liquid oxygen).  Having to verify and incorporate a new engine technology into its launch systems has its own “start up” risks.  Also, Boeing is “old school” with all the expensive infrastructure, methodology practices, and hardware traceability that entails.  Some would argue (definitely not me, who is also old school and proud of it) this makes Boeing less likely to attempt cutting edge methods to lower cost and achieve improved performance (I would counter this argument by saying this makes them less likely to take unnecessary or mis-informed risks with human lives and to be able to perform failure analysis and corrective action in a reliable and tried-and-true fashion).   We who have worked side by side with Boeing for decades have been through many years of successes and crushing failures with them.  We can tell you they are definitely a worthy company whose people and management all want to do the right thing.


Image: Boeing CST-100 Capsule

Now for the wunderkind company, SpaceX – the darling of the media and the company that has ignited the imagination of Americans and Washington politicians alike.  SpaceX also is proposing a capsule (also with a required launch-abort system) for its crew transport vehicle – the Dragon 2 to be launched on SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 rocket.  Unless you’ve been living on the Moon, you should know that SpaceX is the brain child of Elon Musk, the South African-born Canadian American inventor and investor who holds bachelor degrees in both Physics and Economics.  He co-started the web software company Zip2, then co-founded a company some may have heard of called PayPal, from which he reaped over 150 million dollars when the company was sold.  After this, Musk went on to co-found and become CEO of Tesla Motors – a company dedicated to building efficient and high performing electric cars (I don’t mind telling you, I’d love to have one).  He also co-founded SolarCity, a solar panel plant production company.  If you looked up “entrepreneur” in the dictionary, I’d have no doubt you’d find Mr. Musk’s photograph next to the definition.  Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in 2002.  The company focus is on its launch vehicles the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets, and its cargo spacecraft the Dragon capsule.  In 2009, SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket launched and put a satellite into Earth’s orbit.  In 2008, NASA awarded SpaceX funding to design and fly 12 flight of its Falcon 9 / Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, replacing the Space Shuttle (retired in 2011).  SpaceX has always advertised its intention to evolve to a crew transport space company, with highly set goals of reduction in cost and improvement in reliability.   It designs, tests, and fabricates most of its hardware components in house, and NASA is not its only customer.  In 2012, the SpaceX Dragon (cargo version) was berthed with the ISS for the first time, the first “commercial” company to launch and bring a vehicle to the ISS for berthing.  [I put quotes here because, except for the type of contracts used, all NASA vehicles could be considered “commercially” built – after all, they’ve all been built by private-sector companies using NASA funding.]  Since 2012, SpaceX has successfully traveled to and been berthed to the Station five times.  It is scheduled for an early December return to station in 2014 and an early February return in 2015 with several more to follow through 2016.   From this discussion you can see that SpaceX has accrued a lot of experience in launching and getting capsules to Station.  This is definitely a huge positive in its favor.  And its non-convential methods in design and cost savings also are an exciting aspect of this company.  Now for the negatives:  SpaceX has demonstrated quick turnaround from failures. While none of these failures have resulted in a loss of a cargo vehicle to Station, they have resulted in delays in launch and actual loss of secondary cargo.  Failure may not have been an option during Apollo 13, but we in the aerospace business know unfortunately it happens and will happen.  It’s how an organization responds to failure which demonstrates its true worth.  To simply take a failed piece of hardware, fix it, and then re-fly, is not enough.  That is called remedial action.  Like fixing a flat tire on your car and driving away.  Corrective action is when you understand in-depth what caused the failure in the first place and you either (1) change the design so the failure cannot re-occur, or (2) you mitigate recurrence as much as technology and budget allow with workarounds in place should the failure recur.  In-depth safety analysis and acceptance is a big big play in both of these processes.  A company like Boeing, which has “been around the space block” before, knows how to do this intimately.  They’ve learned the hard way (as have we who worked with them) that this is how you protect your vehicles and save people’s lives.  There are some who question if SpaceX has the experience, the documentation, the traceability, and the practical know-how to understand the difference between fixing a problem and performing true corrective action.  But, since we do not have insight into the company’s policies, it is hard to argue for or against if this policy is being practiced.  Unfortunately, we only can “wait and see”.

Dragonv2 image

Image: SpaceX Dragon 2 capsule

So we come to our challenger Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) – Space Exploration Systems.   SNC proposed a small winged “mini-shuttle” vehicle (with a required launch-abort system) called the Dream Chaser to be launched on ULA’s Atlas V rocket as its crew transport vehicle to the Station.  SNC is an American privately held electronic systems provider and integrator.  They specialize in micro satellites, energy, telemedicine, nanotechnology, and commercial orbital transportation services.  They operate under CEO Fatih Ozmen and President Eren Ozmen.  The company holds contracts with the US military and private spaceflight companies as well as NASA.  SNC was founded in 1963 and was later acquired by the Ozmens in 1994.  The company has just started providing aircraft to the US Air Force for reconnaissance and training to the Afghanistan military in 2014.  It acquired SpaceDev in 2008 and started developing the orbital spacecraft called the Dream Chaser as a potential crew transport vehicle to the International Space Station under the Commercial Crew Program.  [As an old Shuttle engineer, I really like SNC’s Dream Chaser winged vehicle.  It looks like a min-Shuttle in many aspects.  I’m putting my bias out for all the world to see.  Love them capsules, but a winged vehicle is my first love.]  The vehicle was designed to be a reusable composite spacecraft which could carry two to seven people and cargo to the ISS.  It could fly autonomously if needed.  It was planned to to be launched on a human-rated Atlas V, and would return from space by gliding and landing on any airport runway that handled commercial air traffic.  Its thrusters burned ethanol based fuel which is non-toxic / non-volatile, so can be handled directly after landing (unlike the Shuttle).  Its thermal protection system was an ablative tile that can be replaced in large sections instead of tile by tile.  It’s on-orbit propulsion was handled by two rocket engines that utilized non-toxic and easily stored propellants.  It’s rockets have seen hundreds of successful rocket firing tests to date, and the company still plans to develop these rocket engines for other customers besides NASA.  In 2013, the Dream Chaser test article performed its first flight after being released from a “sky crane” helicopter.  Just prior to landing the left main landing gear failed to deploy (possibly due to failure of the landing gear door to open) resulting in a crash landing.  All systems were found still working and the crew compartment was intact.  The failed landing gear design on the test vehicle was never meant to be used on the final vehicle design (though I’m uncertain if the door design would have been the same).  And in September 2014, as the attached article above attests, SNC lost the Commercial Crew Contract to SpaceX and Boeing, a decision which SNC is now challenging.  So let’s look at the positives of this company and its proposed design:  First building a crew transport vehicle based on a mini-Shuttle design has many pluses.  It can leverage upon three decades of flight and ground data – data such as aerodynamic, aerothermal, thermal protection concerns and repair, ground turnaround issues, etc.  Also, this vehicle was planned to be launched at the top of the Atlas V, so the external tank foam concerns which caused the last Shuttle accident would not exist.  Its use of non-toxic propellants would be an excellent assist in turnaround operations.  The ability to land at any landing field was an obvious plus.  This vehicle appeared to be more flexible in many ways than the Boeing and SpaceX capsules which require parachute assisted landings.  All good things.  Now the negatives.  First, unlike Boeing, SNC does not have years and years of human space flight experience.  And unlike SpaceX, it doesn’t have recent experience launching to and successfully berthing (or docking) with the Station.  And finally, unlike both Boeing and SpaceX, it does not have its own launch system – it will utilizing ULA’s launch system separate from its own company adding an integration complexity that the other companies may not have.  Finally, some concerns exist that the belly tile would be exposed to micro-meterorite orbital debris (MMOD) and possible damage as the vehicle stayed docked on the Station for its required six month stay (a requirement for all the commerical crew designs to provide an emergency return vehicle).  The Shuttle tile had a known concern with MMOD.  Also, the vehicle’s landing gear tires could potentially lose pressure during the six month period, also a risk that required monitoring during the Shuttle’s relatively 1-2 week stays at Station (as compared to 6 months for the CC vehicles).  So on-orbit issues with this vehicle could have required re-address if this design had been chosen.


Image: SNC “Dream Chase” vehicle

In conclusion, why did NASA pick Boeing and SpaceX over SNC’s Dream Chaser?  Of course, none of us on the outside really know.  But I would suggest that NASA wanted a tried and true company like Boeing, in conjunction with a cutting edge, young, but “gaining experience” company like SpaceX.  These two companies provide NASA with what we in the business call “unlike redundancy”.  If one vehicle has a failure or is grounded due to a problem, the other is there to step up.  Both also utilize different launch systems, so if there is an issue with one launch system, the other company will most likely not have a similar problem with its hardware.  I would therefore suggest that SNC’s relative inexperience and reliance on a second party launch system may have hurt it in the long run.

Now let’s tag on some “out of this world” speculation [and let me stress this is definitely just speculation on my part].  The White House and NASA’s current Administration is looking beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) toward Mars as NASA’s next mission (though many of us would like to go to the Moon first of course).  The NASA capsule, the Orion, also known as the MPCV (Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle), is working diligently toward this endeavor.  The Orion capsule is being built by Lockheed Martin for NASA and is a 2-6 crew capable vehicle that is planned to be launched on the large SLS (Space Launch Systems) rocket.  The SLS is being designed and built by Boeing under the Marshall Space Flight Center’s direction.  The Orion and SLS vehicles originally came from the Constellation Program, a program started under the Bush Administration which has since been cancelled by Mr. Obama, that was to take America back to the Moon.  The Orion capsule is similar to the Boeing capsule and the SpaceX capsule, except potentially for its weight.  For example SpaceX is advertising the Dragon 2 will weigh under 7 tons.  The Orion design currently has it at almost 10 tons.  (I have not found information yet on the proposed weight for the Boeing CST-100 capsule).  The Orion is currently 2.5 times the volume of the original Apollo capsule. So let’s be honest, as much as we applaud the continued success of the Orion capsule and want it to succeed, Orion is heavy and big for a capsule.  And lets be honest again, the SLS rocket is proving to be extremely expensive to design and build.  This is one big rocket.  Due to its size and cost, it will be difficult to launch even one of these rockets per year.  Some nay-sayers speculate the SLS will not be able to launch more than once every two or three years.  In parallel, there are fears that future NASA budgets may not be sufficient to support the SLS.  Without the SLS, the Orion and its Service Module would have to depend on the Falcon “Heavy” (a larger version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9) to launch it into LEO and beyond.  And due to its size and the other hardware needed, to get into deep space this would probably require multiple launches  (as many as four launches to land on the Moon).  A lighter crew vehicle for missions beyond LEO may be desired.  This may be especially true for a mission to land on the Moon (versus a Mars mission) where mass is more important than crew volume due to the shorter duration trip.  What if NASA and the White House is considering other vehicles that could be modified for these future goals besides Orion?  Which of the Commercial Crew vehicles would have the edge on this?  Much as I love the Dream Chaser, it is possible this winged vehicle would be difficult to modify for exploration beyond LEO if NASA wanted to extend the design. I’m not sure the belly tiles or wings could take the higher velocity entry aero heating associated with return from deep space exploration missions. The capsule designs perhaps would be more amenable to mods to allow this type of entry making them possible contenders for beyond LEO missions.

I titled this long writeup as “OPINION” and “SPECULATION”.  I am not in the know here.  But it sure is interesting to think about the political and economic environment we live in and discuss these excellent crew transport vehicle designs and cogitate on why NASA picked Boeing and SpaceX over SNC.  The above writeup constitute my thoughts.  We may not know the full story unless SNC’s legal challenge allows more facts to surface.  Maybe you have some other thoughts on this too…

News Article credit: – September 26, 2014.


2 thoughts on “Sierra Nevada Challenges NASA’s Space Taxi Deal With SpaceX, Boeing – OPINION (AND SPECULATION!)

  1. And, did you know that Boeings CST 100 will be initially operated by NASA’s Mission Operations Directorate (MOD)? Yes, NASA pays Boeing to provide the capability and Boeing pays the MOD costs for Mission Control, and MOD flight controllers to operate it, at least for the initial missions. This was at least the case as of January 2013. This is not the case for SpaceX, although it was offered to them.

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