Space Travel

Part 6 - Returning America To Manned Spaceflight

For the first time in decades there is no rocket certified for human spaceflight available anywhere on planet Earth. To make things a little more interesting the astronauts on the ISS have only a Soyuz capsule which has some unfortunate holes in it!!

The holes are “manufacturing errors” – as you can see from the picture below the holes have clearly been drilled – so this is a pretty terrible failing for a pressure vessel manufacturer and the QC department clearly want some remedial training. The holes which led to some alarm when the atmosphere of the ISS started leaking out through them at a rather alarming rate.

In fact the hole does not significantly jeopardise the return of the ISS crew as it is in the front part of Soyuz that is jettisoned after departing the station, but getting into the capsule for a fiery re-entry in what is obviously a “Friday afternoon special” will probably require an extra shot of vodka!

Ross, Going Postal
Soyuz capsule which has some unfortunate holes in it

Roscosmos (the russian NASA) had its reputation further damaged when the US – Russian joint crew of Soyuz MS-10 had their launch aborted rather dramatically a couple of weeks ago.

So with Russia’s flights on holds and China (which has only ever launched a handful of manned missions) not likely to be ready to fly manned flights again until 2019 the human race currently has no manned launch capability.

Turning to America, they have had no manned space capability since the end of the Shuttle programme in 2012. America has two groups that want to get into space – NASA and the Military / National Security. These organisations had co-operated on the Shuttle (in a bit of a forced marriage) and the big Shuttle payload bay was in part designed like that to take large US spy satellites (they really can be huge). But the launches were incredibly expensive – it worked out about $1.2Bn dollars per launch – between five and twenty times the commercial cost per launch of even a big satellite on a big rocket.

So NASA and the national security organisations took diverging paths even before the end of the Shuttle programme.  Each today have their own programmes –  both of which have been massively wasteful in US taxpayers money, in my opinion, although for different reasons. (Something we might return to later in the series)

The one relatively sensible bit of spending was in the Commercial Cargo Resupply programme that NASA put in place for the (unmanned) resupply of the ISS. Contracts that were won by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (the latter a strange choice). These companies were chosen partly because big established players like Boeing and Lockheed Martin didn’t like the size of the funding for initial competition / development and so weren’t that interested and quite possibly thought that NASA would return to them with its tail between its legs.

As part of that cargo programme SpaceX designed a returnable and re-usable pressurised capsule called ‘Dragon’. The capsule was given the name by Musk in reference the song “puff the magic Dragon” – not because of weed smoking but because his much bigger Aerospace rivals in the early years of this century thought the prospect of him developing a resuable capsule were complete fantasy (SpaceX was only founded in 2002).

NASA has now taken the commercial cargo model and extended it into the world of manned space flight – with the Commercial Crew Programme. In 2014 Boeing were awarded $4.2Bn and SpaceX $2.6Bn to each develop a complete system for manned flight to and from the ISS including test launches, demonstration flights and an unspecified number of actual flights of the manned craft. Here is a picture of the two capsules and the astronauts selected for the programme.

Ross, Going Postal
The astronauts selected for the programme

The Boeing capsule (The Boeing Starliner) can use a number of older, reliable but expensive, launch vehicles and will start with the Atlas V.

The The SpaceX development uses an upgrade of the Dragon capsule called the Crew Dragon which is much more ‘2001’ than spacecraft we have seen before on top of a Falcon 9.

Ross, Going Postal
Dragon capsule

here is a more complete tour…

After years of development this programme is about to bear fruit, indeed it is sufficiently close that some speculated after the Russian failure of two weeks ago that it might be accelerated in order to try and keep the ISS manned. (spoiler: it won’t be accelerated)

Boeing are likely to launch an unmanned test flight in spring 2019 with a manned flight towards the end of 2019 (my estimates of the current timeline)

SpaceX are likely to launch their finished capsule on an unmanned test flight in around three months time, with a crewed flight  by around June 2019 (my estimates of the current timeline)

Even allowing for slips in the programme, it seems likely that after a gap of seven years America will return to manned space flight in 2019.

© Ross 2018

Audio file