We’ve all seen the videos. Even though there have been more space shuttle successes than failures, NASA feels as though it’s important to protect those aboard during one of the most treacherous windows of space travel.
NASA has awarded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) $75 million to develop a revolutionary launch escape system that will enable the company’s Dragon spacecraft to carry astronauts. The Congressionally mandated award is part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) initiative that started in 2009 to help private companies mature concepts and technologies for human spaceflight.
SpaceX’s integrated escape system will be superior to traditional solid rocket tractor escape towers used by other vehicles in the past. Due to their extreme weight, tractor systems must be jettisoned within minutes of liftoff, but the SpaceX innovative design builds the escape engines into the side walls of Dragon, eliminating the danger of releasing a heavy solid rocket escape tower after launch.
The SpaceX design also provides crew with emergency escape capability throughout the entire flight, whereas the Space Shuttle has no escape system and even the Apollo moon program allowed escape only during the first few minutes of flight. The result is that astronauts flying on Dragon will be considerably safer.
Furthermore, the integrated escape system returns with the spacecraft, allowing for easy reuse and radical reductions in the cost of space transport. Over time, the same escape thrusters will also provide the capability for Dragon to land almost anywhere on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy, overcoming the limitation of a winged architecture that works only in Earth’s atmosphere.
“This award will accelerate our efforts to develop the next-generation rockets and spacecraft for human transportation,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer. “With NASA’s support, SpaceX will be ready to fly its first manned mission in 2014.”
Musk said the flight-proven Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft represent the safest and fastest path to American crew transportation capability. With their historic successful flight on December 8th, 2010, many Falcon 9 and Dragon components that are needed to transport humans to low-Earth orbit have already been demonstrated in flight. Both vehicles were designed from the outset to fly people.
The announcement comes at a time when the United States has a critical need for American commercial human spaceflight. After the Space Shuttle retires in a few months, NASA will be totally dependent on the Russian Soyuz to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) at a cost of more than $753 million a year — about $63 million per seat.
Musk said Dragon – designed to carry seven astronauts at a time to the space station at a cost of $20 million a seat – offers a far better deal for the U.S. taxpayer. While considerable flight testing remains, the critical-path technology Dragon needs for carrying humans to orbit is the launch escape system.
Under the award, SpaceX will modify Dragon to accommodate crew, with specific hardware milestones that will provide NASA with regular, demonstrated progress including:
• Static fire testing of the launch escape system engines
• Initial design of abort engine and crew accommodations
• Prototype evaluations by NASA crew for seats, control panels and cabin
The December 8th, 2010, demonstration flight of Falcon 9 and Dragon was the first flight under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which was initiated to develop commercial cargo services to the International Space Station. After the Space Shuttle retires, SpaceX will fly at least 12 missions to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract for NASA.