By Guy Norris
Lockheed Martin warns that fast-track plans to develop alternate commercial human-rated transport systems to the International Space Station could be costly in terms of time, money and even safety.
The warning comes as the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee completes its final options for presidential consideration. At the same time, Lockheed Martin reveals it is examining a wide range of future tasks for the Orion crew exploration vehicle far beyond the lunar and International Space Station (ISS) support missions for which it was originally conceived. The company plans to complete the preliminary design review for the spacecraft by month-end.
While the prospects for Ares I and Orion await the baseline recommendations from the committee, led by retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, the spacecraft manufacturer remains far from complacent. John Stevens, business development human spaceflight director for Lockheed Martin Space Systems, says "we're having a hard time affording the Orion program, which is designed to take humans to the station and the Moon, and now they're talking about starting a commercial program to take humans. We're saying 'hang on' - we've already got one. If we can't afford one program, how can we afford two?"
Stevens cautions that, in Lockheed Martin's view, unless commercial ventures are accomplished in a steady step-by-step approach, their short-term cost-saving potential runs the risk of longer-term difficulties. "We know how difficult it is to transport to the station and we don't want people to cut corners, and downstream having NASA pay the penalty of the time and cost of doing this."
The clear target for the comments is California-based Space Exploration (SpaceX), which is working toward a human-rated version of its Falcon 9/Dragon spacecraft combination, provisionally outlined under the crew transfer portion of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, referred to as COTS-D. In 2006, SpaceX won the competition to demonstrate transport of cargo and optionally crew to and from the ISS and, under that agreement, it plans to fly both the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft before the end of this year. The final flight, scheduled for 2010, is planned to demonstrate Dragon's ability to berth with the station.
SpaceX is then due to begin the first of 12 operational cargo flights to the ISS, under the subsequently awarded Cargo Resupply Services contract. Human-rated flights under the COTS-D effort meanwhile edged a step closer with the award in April of initial funding for some crew-demonstration development work as part of the $150 million of the $400 million for human exploration awarded to NASA under President Barack Obama's stimulus plan. Although far less than advocates hoped for, the award effectively signaled the start of COTS-D work.
"I'd rather wait for the nation to see Dragon get successful at transporting cargo, rather than say, 'let's do it all at once," Stevens says. "It's a bit of a leap to the conclusion that 'we can do this,' and that alarms us. . . . If you give up safety or reliability, then you're giving up the wrong things. We're concerned that these entrepreneurial firms are promising too much. If you don't know what you don't know, then it's easy to say you can do this for so much."
Early this year SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said, "NASA will certify Dragon as habitable for crew even under the COTS A-C program, as it necessarily becomes an integral part of the space station and is occupied by astronauts when attached." The development of a launch escape system, a critical requirement of the human-rated Dragon, "can be developed within two years, which means F9/Dragon can be ready to transport astronauts by mid-to-late 2011. By that date, Falcon 9 will have flown a dozen times and Dragon will have done a round-trip journey to the space station roughly half a dozen times with cargo, proving out reliability well in advance of carrying people."
From a cost and U.S. jobs perspective, Musk argues COTS-D presents a compelling argument for covering the looming gap between the upcoming retirement of the shuttle and the scheduled start of NASA Ares I flights. Musk says the 100% U.S.-manufactured Falcon 9/Dragon would cost less than $20 million per seat; the currently negotiated per-seat cost of the Russian Soyuz is $47 million. "Although a lot more work would be needed to certify it for astronaut transport to and from the station, that work can readily be accomplished before the end of 2011, particularly given the empirical flight history it will have by then," says Musk.
Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, outlines a range of additional roles for Orion which it says will increase its flexibility and cost-effectiveness. Designed to operate for up to 210 days in Earth or lunar orbit, and carry up to six crew, the Orion spacecraft "will prove itself a great national asset," says Brian Duffy, program manager of Lockheed Martin's Altair lunar lander program.