Commercial Crew Transportation Capability program winners

I have had a very busy summer and Much has happened since my last post. SpaceX successfully launched a couple satellites to GEO and just this week launched the long anticipated CRS-4 DRagon which attached safely on ISS just yesterday. I brings onboard a couple of new inhabitants onto ISS, mousetronauts! It would be fun to see how theses rodents will adapt to zero gravity and how much fun they think it is to just freely float in space… Of course they don’t just have a free ride, they are up there to assist in scientific research. Along with the mousetronauts that live in there special designed habitat, on board came a small bone densitometer which is a special kind of x-ray machine to measure the Mousetronauts bone density and see how there bone density degrades over time. This is can be an important peace in the puzzle how to prevent extended loss of bone density as astronauts make a long space journey to e.g. Mars.

The big news of the past month is NASA’s selection for the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability program (CCtCap). From the three that where in the race: Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and SpaceX at least one had to be dropped. For obvious reasons not be dependent on only one company, NASA would ideally select two.It is not surprising that SpaceX and Boeing did win and that Sierra Nevada with it’s Shuttle like Dream Chaser was left behind.

NASA did make this public, bit what was not made public how it came to this choice lets take a closer look to these competitors.

Dream Chaser from SNC

Lets take a look at Dream Chaser designed by, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC)

Dream Chaser is a so called lifting body, much like the Space Shuttle, but roughly only a quarter of it’s length and capable of  caring up to seven astronauts. It has two small winglets and herein lies basic design problem. The front area of the winglets which has the same design problem as the space shuttle.

When a spaceships reenters the atmosphere it has to loose a lot of kinetic energy, this is done by braking against the earth atmosphere. The kinetic energy is transferred into a lot of heat, which is absorbed by the heat shield. The hight of the temperature of the heat shield is determined by a couple of factors on is the radius of the heat shield. When you have a large radius temperatures stay even an relatively low. If you have small radius the temperature will rise significantly.

A traditional gumdrop shaped capsule like the Dragon, has a large radius. the wings from the Space Shuttle and the Dream Chaser have a small radius and temperatures on these places will rise significantly. The design problem lies in the fact that materials that can withstand higher temperatures are much more brittle and are much easier damaged as we know was the cause of the last Space Shuttle disaster.

With al due respect to the designers of both ships, with todays technology, wings on a space ship  is a really bad idea! Elon Musk founder and CEO from SpaceX thinks that putting wings on a spaceship just is right out a design flaw… Despite to the smooth runway landing you can make with a lifting body with wings, I think Elon has a very good point. Wings unnecessary complicates a spaceship design, raises the overall cost and introduces additional risks as you need to actively control the winged spaceships descend as it is not aerodynamically stable, contrary to the gumdrop spaceship which after reentry is passively stable and only needs to eject it’s parachutes to safely land.

CST-100 from Boeing

Boeing is a long time participant in space flight. For instance they build the first stage of the mighty Saturn V rocket which is the only rocket till today that brought humans to the moon.

These are the highlights that Boeing uses to “advertise” there CTS-100 capsule.

  • Reusable up to 10 times
  • Weldless structure
  • Tablet technology
  • Wireless Internet
  • Boeing LED “Sky Lighting”

Tablet technology, Wireless Internet, Boeing LED “Sky Lighting”… These are features from commercial airplanes, not spacecraft specs…. Is Boeing kidding us, or just not interested to get real?

Is the CTS-100 innovative? Far from that. CTS-100 looks like a slightly bigger Apollo capsule and service module , hastily pimped pimped with some state of the art Boeing commercial airliner features. And as we will see later CTS-100 is also expensive. much more expansive than the state of the art solution SpaceX is building.

Dragon v2 by SpaceX

SpaceX has been very successful with there original Dragon. This was the first commercial spaceship to doc with ISS and the only spaceship available today to bring back cargo to earth. That’s right al other solutions out there are one way tickets and burn up on reentry. Only Soyuz is capable to transport people back and forward to ISS , bus has hardly any cargo capability.

  • Dragon v2 has a really nice set of specs:
  • Reusable in order of 10 times without refurbishment. Much more with refurbishments.
  • Propulsive vertical landing with the accuracy of a helicopter, with backup parachute system.
  • Eight build-in super SuperDraco engines. These are both the launch escape rockets and the capsule landing rocket.
  • Trunk for unprepared cargo and covered with solar cells for electricity production.
  • Reusable nose cone. The nose cone pivots on a hinge to enable Dragin to dock with ISS, after undocking the nose cone is turned back to protect the docking hedge during reentry.

Innovative? Yes! Revolutionary? Yes! It’s developed with quick reusability in mind. Together with the the Falcon 9-R SpaceX is aiming for a fully reusable launching space transportation system.

When I first read the tweet that SpaceX was awarded the CCtCap I was happy that there innovative and beautiful capsule is one of the two winners and will be developed fully. To my astonishment I read that Boeing’s was awarded $4.2 billion, and SpaceX’s $2.6 billion…. Why is Boeing awarded almost the double of what SpaceX is awarded. After some reading I learned that both companies had to propose a budget in which they could execute the plan of building and flying crew to ISS. Turns out that SpaceX can do this for about 60% of the price Boeing needs….

So SpaceX turns out be more innovative, have a better reusability and can do the job much, much cheaper.

So if all companies had there technical development and management in order. SpaceX is an obvious choice, They have an excellent track record and can do the job for a very good price. So why CTS -100 from Boeing and not Dream Chaser from SNC? True the idea of wings is not the best, but much was learned from the Space Shuttle disasters. Why choose a non innovative overpriced solution? Well there might be some politics involved as one of my best friends suggested, by sending me some news facts.

April 23, 2013
Boeing Co. donated $1 million to this year’s inauguration festivities for President Barack Obama, making it the third-largest corporate donor nationwide and the only publicly traded firm in Illinois to contribute.

Well third largest firm, would be embarrassing to lose that Nasa contract would it…

This together with the to long treasured cost-plus contacts that where commonplace in the space industry and have for decennia slowed innovation in space and space industry to crawling pace. That’s why I am so happy SpaceX started to revolutionize space industry with the ultimate goal to put a human colony on Mars.


I just read that Sierra Nevada Corporation Protests NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Award. Details will follow.


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