Tuesday, March 10, 2015

To the Space Station, Commercially

It was another gorgeous 80 degree almost-spring day in Florida as I drove to Cape Canaveral. Though I was a little farther south than Kennedy Space Center, the Vehicle Assembly Building still towers in the distance as I drove over the causeway (that is, bridge). The highway that begins in Orlando ends at the coast and turns south at Cape Canaveral where it cutely becomes Astronaut Boulevard. Right near that bend is a stretch of hotels, and that was my destination.

Three National Space Club chapters exist, and I'm lucky enough to live near one of them. Ever since I partnered with the NSC Florida Committee four years ago to co-host one of their networking events, I've been a member and a regular attendee of the monthly luncheons. The crowd comes together to dine, socialize, network, and listen to a guest speaker or two share the latest exciting news in the space industry.

Today's talk was a panel. Lisa Colloredo, the Associate Manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, was the moderator. The two panelists were Barry Matsumori of SpaceX and Pete McGrath of Boeing. The joke was that this panel would be a cage match. It wasn't; the real cage match will be between SpaceX's Elon Musk and ULA's Tory Bruno at a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing next week, if they both attend!

All three speakers opened up with videos. NASA's videos have gotten so much better with time. The video montage featured NASA's commercial crew providers. Lisa Colloredo discussed how NASA is preparing the International Space Station for the commercial companies who will visit the station. The Commercial Crew Program is only as successful as the commercial crew providers, she said, but added that industry has really stepped up! Unless I missed it, I noted that Sierra Nevada Corporation wasn't mentioned at all since they did not win the latest Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts.

Barry Matsumori of SpaceX was the first panelist to speak. He opened with an exciting video typical of SpaceX's flashiness. He began by boasting that SpaceX has had 16 successful Falcon 9 rocket flights, and with 10 engines each, that's 160 successful engines. I seem to recall that a boost stage failure a few years ago doomed an Orbcomm payload to the wrong orbit, but maybe that's not counted as an engine failure for some reason. In either case, SpaceX's Falcon 9 spaceflight success certainly is much improved from its Falcon 1 early years.

The speaker went on to comment that SpaceX is learning to work with NASA and that NASA learning to work with SpaceX! It's such a culture clash, I do hope working relationships are improving. He talked a bit about the Dragon capsule. It had a porthole from the beginning because human transportation has always been the goal. Dragon's success rate is 100%.

SpaceX is continuing infrastructure improvements in Florida. Launch Complex (LC) 40 is their primary launch pad. They are modifying the former space shuttle pad LC 39A (the one Blue Origin competed for) by refurbishing the flame shoot and the pad mouth. They are also building a hanger there nearly twice as large as their existing LC 40 hanger. They are planning for their first test firing in July or August (because the hottest months in Florida need more heat, I think!). They've also converted LC 13 into Landing Complex 1 for when they land their rocket stages on terra firma instead of ocean barges. I'm looking forward to seeing that!

Barry Matsumori concluded by reaching a hand of friendship to his Boeing colleague, stating that SpaceX and Boeing are complements to each other. Both are needed in the space industry. Pete McGrath of Boeing picked up the tone and agreed, reminding us that the space industry is incestuous; employees move around.

Pete McGrath showed a video too, more of a simulation to get the point across that modifications to the infrastructure of LC 41 are happening at the same time as launches on the same pad, which makes for a busy and demanding logistical schedule. My friend Ryan tweeted that the video reminded him of a cross between two video games, the Kerbal Space Program and the Sims.

The speaker also discussed the conversion of the old space shuttle Orbital Processing Facility 3 (OPF3) to the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF, not quite Star Wars' C3PO). They removed a whole lot of steel, added 1500 feet of clean room, and created both a low and high bay. The facility will be used for vehicle integration. They expect the first test flight hardware by this summer, followed by the qualification, orbital, and flight test hardware.

The Boeing capsule CST-100 is being designed to land on dry ground with the help of parachutes, but can make emergency water landings. An audience member asked where Boeing is planning to land. White Sands, New Mexico is their primary, but they also have other locations in mind. Within the capsule, astronauts will wear a new spacesuit designed by the David Clark Company, which he said has designed every spacesuit flown to date, but I'm thinking he means in America only.

Finally, the speaker discussed the commercial market, which was a hot topic in the question and answer session. When I worked for CASIS, the fact that the International Space Station has a finite lifetime was always in the back of my head. Right now everyone agrees on keeping the ISS running until 2020, and most are in agreement about 2024, but there are no plans for the ISS past 2024. He stressed that we need to start thinking about a post-ISS market, and mentioned Bigelow Aerospace's Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) as an example, which is set to launch in September. Barry Matsumori agreed and cited international astronaut services as a possible market, stating that the demand is there.

An audience member asked about the time it will take to refurbish the companies' respective crew capsules. Both the Dragon and the CST-100 are reusable. Boeing said 6 months for theirs, but SpaceX would not say. Both panelists promoted examples of microgravity research that can be conducted in space on their facilities. They gave one example each in the time allotted to them; I could write two or three blog entries dedicated to the subject.

I had my hand up to ask about beyond-low Earth orbit (LEO) travel such as Mars, but someone else asked it first. Boeing has no plans to make their capsule rated to travel beyond LEO; it's not set up to fly for long periods of time, it's not radiation hardened for the Van Allen belts, etc. Boeing is building specifically for the mission that NASA has given them and that drives down cost and risk. In contrast, SpaceX's destination has been Mars from the beginning. Affordability is paramount to them achieving their goals. They are working on building systems which will support such a mission. They see the Commercial Crew Program is a stepping stone.

Both speakers agreed that additional funds might speed up their crew program development, but not by much, months rather than years. This has been a big topic lately in Congress because of the concern of relying on Russia for astronaut transportation. Congress wants to know if pumping more money into the program would speed up America's ability to provide our own human transportation to space, whether that's through NASA or a commercial partner. Surprisingly, the answer seems to be a unanimous no, more money won't accelerate things much. Technology takes time.

The NSC luncheons aren't all about the awesome talks. I got to hang with my space peeps, meet new people, respond to people's curiosity about my new company Swiss Space System, and respond to their curiosity about my new name. I sat at a table with my NSC luncheon buddy Bonnie who is shorter than I am (and I'm 5'1”) and has more energy than even I have. I also sat with an old friend Bill who I used to co-run a local technology society with. I greeted acquaintances, colleagues, friends, and new faces. I chatted with a man who I view as a mentor. I caught up with my favorite space newspaper reporter James Dean who I made even later to NASA's afternoon briefing on the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission which is scheduled to launch on Thursday.

The space community does some awesome things, but we're really about the people, not the hardware. I love what I do because of the people I do it with and the mission we advance together. Events like the NSC luncheons bring people together to meet, do business, and get to know each other. I feel so thankful to be a part of it.

James Dean's Florida Today article on the event can he found here.


  1. I whooped a bit when I saw James Dean's tweet with a photo of the LANDING COMPLEX 1 sign.

    The reason the Orbcomm "failure" doesn't count is that the Falcon 9 easily could have placed the payload into its intended orbit -- but NASA was the primary customer (CRS-1) and NASA mission rules were that an additional engine burn wasn't allowed to satisfy the secondary customer. It was a "failure" only because of NASA; Orbcomm knew the risk when they signed up, and accepted the risk. This was the launch where SpaceX suffered an engine-out during launch, but the other eight engines increased acceleration to compensate.

    By the way, the C3PO acronym is already taken -- NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office. That's probably why OPF-3 was renamed C3PF.

  2. Ah, thanks for the Orbcomm explanation! That makes sense. Must have been frustrating for them.

    Did not know that about C3PO. You are a wealth of information, as always.

    By the way, you're mentioned in my next entry. ;)

  3. Here's the SpaceX statement: