NASA: Commercial space projects heating up

NASA’s projects with Boeing, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada moving along

sierra nevada
NASA's role as commercial space entrepreneur is going well and the four companies it is funding to build future spacecraft that could take astronauts to and from the International Space Station and other destinations are moving forward.

That was the chief observation in a status report the space agency issued this week entitled "NASA's return on investment report."   You may recall that in April NASA split $270 million between Boeing ($92 million), Space Exploration Technologies (Space X--$75 million), Sierra Nevada ($80 million) and Blue Origin ($22 million) to continue development of commercial rockets and spacecraft capable of safely flying astronauts into orbit and to the International Space Station. The award was the second phase of the agency's Commercial Crew Development program, known as CCDEV2. 

More on commercial space: Can Space X and Orbital step up for NASA?

From the NASA report, here's how those companies are moving along:

BOEING: Boeing achieved a major milestone on May 19 by completing their delta Systems Definition Review (SDR) barely a month after CCDev2 Space Act Agreements were executed. Boeing engineers presented numerous updates and improvements to their CST-100 spacecraft design since the original SDR under CCDev 1 which occurred in October 2010. These updates included improved protection from orbital debris and changes to the crew module, which enables improved packaging and mounting of tanks and other equipment. Boeing also presented a comparison of their architecture with the latest drafts of NASA's requirements and standards for International Space Station (ISS) commercial crew transportation.

SPACE X: During CCDev 2, SpaceX plans to continue to mature their crew transportation system, with emphasis on Launch Abort System (LAS).  SpaceX's crew transportation system features the existing and flight-proven Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft which have been designed since inception for crew carriage. Thus, the system on which SpaceX will focus during CCDev 2 is the safety-critical LAS. SpaceX also plans to mature their crew systems design and perform crew cabin trials during CCDev 2. SpaceX successfully completed its initial milestone, a CCDev 2 Kickoff Meeting, in May. During the Kickoff Meeting, SpaceX reviewed NASA certification requirements, and the company presented to NASA officials the design status of all systems along with risks and potential mitigations. The next SpaceX milestone is the LAS Propulsion Conceptual Design Review, planned for July, where SpaceX will present design data, documentation, risk assessments, and schedule data along with analysis and verification plans to show that their concept is technically sound and accommodates human factors requirements.

Sierra Nevada: NASA's investment in Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) will help advance the company's commercial crew transportation system design through a Preliminary Design Review. The spacecraft, know as Dream Chaser, is a reusable, piloted lifting body derived from NASA's HL-20 and will be launched on an Atlas V launch vehicle. SNC successfully conducted a project kickoff meeting and System Requirements Review milestone on June 1. For the Systems Requirements Review, SNC provided ten documents to NASA and SNC's partner organizations for review and comment. The documents included the company's Human Rating Certification Plan, Risk Mitigation Plan, System Engineering Management Plan, and several others that established a preliminary system architecture for the Dream Chaser system. NASA and the SNC partner organizations provided comments and suggestions to these documents and SNC dispositioned all the comments and suggestions with acceptable closure plans. The next SNC CCDev 2 milestone, Tip Fin Airfoil Selection, will feature test results on candidate airfoils, and the best airfoil for aerodynamic and thermal performance will be selected for the Dream Chaser's tip fins.

Blue Origin is developing vehicles and technologies to lower the cost and increase the reliability of human access to space. The NASA investment will accelerate development of a crew transportation system capable of transporting crew and cargo safely and affordably to low Earth orbit. Their crew transportation system is comprised of a reusable space vehicle launched first on an Atlas V launch vehicle and then on Blue Origin's own Reusable Booster System. The Reusable Booster System features a new, low cost liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen engine that could potentially be suitable for a variety of other applications.

In May, Blue Origin successfully conducted project kickoff meetings for each of the three CCDev 2 efforts. The first effort focuses on maturing their overall space vehicle design. The second effort features ground and flight tests of their pusher escape system for astronauts. The pusher escape system is a key enabler of full-vehicle reusability, and it has the potential to significantly increase the safety of the system. The third effort revolves around accelerating the engine development for their Reusable Booster System. Blue Origin's next CCDev 2 milestones are scheduled for September. These milestones include a space vehicle Mission Concept Review and a review of Blue Origin's Reusable Booster System engine thrust chamber interface and test plan.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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