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Private Space Industry Works to Replace the Shuttle

With the shuttle’s final mission next week, the private sector has some work to do.

  • June 29, 2011

NASA has released the first edition of its new bi-monthy newsletter that focuses on “happenings” in the agency’s commercial spaceflight development program. The first newsletter is devoted to the progress made in the commercial crew development program, which recently awarded four companies money to develop spacecraft that can carry astronauts to space. The progress made by these companies–SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada Corporation–is small. But with the space shuttle’s final mission scheduled for July 8, the pressure is on for these companies to work quickly and efficiently to meet their goals.

“The space shuttle’s retirement gives commercial companies more incentive to push the development of their systems,” says Craig Steidle, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “They are excited about what’s coming up, but the pressure is getting financial support, to make sure we have the money to allow them to do spaceflight demonstrations.”

Steidle is optimistic that the commercial companies working on human spaceflight will meet their goals, and we will see the first astronaut launch to space on a commercial spacecraft in 2017.

Here’s a round up of what these companies are up to:

Boeing is developing the CST-100 spacecraft, and perhaps achieved the greatest milestone for its spacecraft thus far by completing its delta Systems Definition Review–an analysis of the design and requirements of the spacecraft and its subsystems, including structures, thermal, electrical, propulsion, life support, software and avionics. According to the company’s press release,

The Delta SDR enables a common understanding of the design baseline as the team progresses toward a system-level Preliminary Design Review (PDR), which will further mature the system design and ensure it meets all requirements. Under the second round of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Space Act Agreement, Boeing expects to complete its System PDR no later than early spring 2012.

Boeing is preparing to gather performance data on the spacecraft’s launch abort system and service module fuel tank; evaluate vehicle ascent performance in wind tunnel testing; and build on earlier landing air bag and parachute demonstrations with more in-depth investigations.

In June Boeing will present a plan for identifying and mitigating potential spaceflight safety hazards for the spacecraft.

SpaceX meanwhile is developing the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft, which are both test flight proven. With the new funding the company is focusing on the development of a launch abort system and improving the design of the crew systems. SpaceX completed its initial milestone, a kickoff meeting with NASA officials to review requirements and present design status updates. In July, the company will have to present data, documentation, and risk assessments to show that the launch abort system concept is technically sound.

Sierra Nevada Corporation is building the Dream Chaser, a reusable piloted spacecraft that will be launched on an Atlas V rocket. It also had initial kickoff meeting and Systems Requirement Review and will present test results on the aerodynamic and thermal performance of the airfoil for the Dream Chaser’s tip fins.

Blue Origin’s crew transportation system will be a reusable biconic space vehicle that has been launched on an Atlas V rocket and then on the company’s own reusable booster system. After initial meetings the company improved the overall space vehicle design. The next step will be ground and flight tests of its pusher escape system for astronauts, and accelerating the engine design for the reusable booster system.

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