Kistling a Different Tune: Commercial Space in an Alternate Key

Things are starting to ramp up in the timeline! A kerosene fueled tug of war is taking shape between the entrenched legacy players and the jockeying of new commercial firms for the future of space.

Which is of course the question: What’s next?

Parachute and ocean recovery for Falcon is.... an idea. Not sure if they’re planning on dumping them in the ocean like Shuttle SRBs, or if they’re cooking up a giant Mr. Steven to catch booster sized things.

Meanwhile RpK has taken an early lead against Hawthorne and NASA. Through them ISS will continue to have supplies carried by reusable rockets after Shuttle is retired (knock on wood). I wish both K-1 and Falcon safe trips in the upcoming launch, and further on into the future.

Lastly it’s the “What to do with thousands of jobs and billions in Federal funding” question. Shuttle hardware is proven and quite reliable, why fix what’s not broken? I do hope DIRECT beats out SLS, but I still think it’ll encounter a lot of the issues faced in our timeline. Wrong rocket for the wrong time.

Keep up the good work!
 
Parachute and ocean recovery for Falcon is.... an idea. Not sure if they’re planning on dumping them in the ocean like Shuttle SRBs, or if they’re cooking up a giant Mr. Steven to catch booster sized things.
That's exactly what SpaceX was planning for early recovery. The first two Falcon 9 1.0 first stages actually had parachutes attached for planned soft-touchdown in the water. It is likely that historically they, lacking attitude control, tumbled and broke up in the atmosphere as they came down.
 
RpK Logo, circa 2006
Something I came across while digging through research documents today:

RpK_small.png


This logo seems pretty hard to find on documents--a lot of Kistler and Rocketplane's documents and graphics either never got updated with new logos after the merger or were kept as the separate logos as part of the merged company's strange dual structure. Imagine this on a hat, and it's what I'd have seen in 2010 in this timeline that caught my eye. Please note that the arrowhead spacecraft in this logo comes from the original Kistler's logo, where I think it was meant to represent their original conical K-1 design. Presumably they decided that changing their branding would be hard and it was just close enough to a conventional "star trek'-style arrowhead that they retained it after they redesigned the vehicle.
 
June 4, 2010: Falcon 9 Maiden Launch
On the internet and in professional contexts, the two COTS competitors had long harbored an intense rivalry. Kistler, the corporate predecessor to RpK, had been driven into its first bankruptcy by the revocation of their NASA-provided SLI contract after a SpaceX legal challenge, and viewed SpaceX in many of the same ways SpaceX was viewed by others in the traditional space sector. Elon was, like his firm, a loud, brash, arrogant upstart who had promised much but to date had delivered little, yet had demanded consideration as though his team’s methods might upend the industry and invalidate all the experience in the ways success had been found in the past. SpaceX, for their part, saw Rocketplane as representative of the traditional ways of doing business in spaceflight they were looking to disrupt. By their logic, Kistler had monopolized venture capital in spaceflight for years, sinking it into an enormous development budget (nearly as much as had been spent on all of Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and Dragon) to fund a vast army of subcontractors that had, at long last, barely succeeded in producing a single flying vehicle and yet were now as a merged company sinking yet more funding into the objective of a reusable suborbital spaceplane--one Elon and others at SpaceX saw as orthogonal to successful orbital reusable rockets. While each saw opponents in the spending on Shuttle-derived heavy lifters and in other companies elsewhere, after nearly a decade which had seen everything from legal challenges to competing for small sat contracts and build a contract book for Falcon 1 and K-1, each had a corporate culture which quietly believed that while Shuttle-derived lifters might be COTS’ current opposition, the COTS awards and flight testing to date almost boiled down to keeping your friends close but your enemies closer.

This kerosene-fueled tug of war had proceeded for the last several years as both companies pushed vehicles into service. At the moment, RpK was leading. While SpaceX might have gotten their Falcon 1 into orbit first by over a year, the back-to-back successes of the K-1 Risk Reduction Demo and the first of the K-1’s demonstration flights to station saw the Falcon family of rockets overshadowed for the next six months. However, by the interaction of readiness, range schedules, and the ISS visiting vehicle calendar, SpaceX was the first to the pad in June. It had been nearly 18 months since a hastily-assembled mockup Falcon 9, built from structural boilerplates and qualification hardware had been cobbled together at LC-40 to meet Elon’s brag that a Falcon would be at the pad in 2009. It had been two months since the static fire by the maiden real Falcon 9 to reach the pad had helped launch crews commission the site--a long two months while government agencies reviewed SpaceX’s paperwork and nit-picked their hardware. Now, finally, the rocket was ready to go for real...or it should be.


The Falcon 9 was a new rocket, and came with its fair share of teething problems. This had been seen months earlier, when the static fire test had required three attempts to the full three-second duration after an engine issue aborted one of the earlier attempts after engine start due to bad startup telemetry on a single engine. SpaceX had built a reputation with their Falcon 1 flights and previous Falcon 9 tests of using the low-boiloff of their standard-temperature kerosene/LOX rockets (compared to the aggressive hydrogen or super-cooled kerosene used by Shuttle or K-1) to make full use of their often hours-long window requests. However, few were prepared for the marathon that the first launch countdown would prove to be. Like many, I awoke at ten in the morning and got breakfast while I followed the countdown to the original 11:20 AM launch time. What followed was more than three and a half hours of waiting as SpaceX worked various vehicle and range issues. Initially, weather tracked as the main concern, but as the launch time approached and SpaceX engineers went through the process of preparing the vehicle for flight the range suddenly went red and the range safety team called a hold.

The hold timer counted up for almost forty minutes on the constantly-buffering stream, as the SpaceX servers (like those of ARN) were nearly overwhelmed by traffic. As onlookers on ARN called out their anticipation of the inevitable scrub, SpaceX and the range worked the issue. It emerged very early that the issue had been with the flight termination telemetry--which hadn’t been in place for the static fire tests late in 2009. Apparently, in spite of the certification efforts of the preceding months, there was an issue with the strongback interfering with the signals in certain configurations. The issue hadn’t occurred when the rocket’s receivers had been tested in the hangar, as the transmitter simulator cones placed directly over the receivers to simulate the signals hadn’t had to work around the strongback, and now SpaceX and the range had to work the unexpected problem, moving the strongback back and forth from the vehicle to verify the effects. The telemetry problem sparked discussion on ARN, as the inevitable comparisons began between SpaceX and RpK. The K-1, after all, used a new and previously untested system which they referred to as ‘range on the vehicle,” where the vehicle acted on its own GPS-guided authority to decide whether to initiate the flight termination system--a boon given the limited state of the Woomera range. This autonomous flight termination system had been controversial when originally proposed and had drawn comparisons as RpK brought the K-1 into service and SpaceX worked with their Air Force to certify their conventional ground-control flight termination system. Now the benefits of the unconventional systems were proving their worth, at least in comparison to SpaceX’s issues.


While SpaceX worked out the bugs of their “conventional” systems on Falcon, the US Coast Guard played tag with recreational and commercial boaters in the keep-out zone downrange, as Blackhawks hovered over decks and dropped bags of flour to ensure the attention of the mariners steering the four or five boats which violated the range over the course of roughly an hour. This at least was nothing new, familiar to Shuttle and EELV launches for decades and with the occasional observers learning the range limits at Woomera. Finally, the range and the telemetry issues were resolved and SpaceX proceeded with their count into the final seconds...only for them to once again experience a last second abort. The flash of green fire, barely captured by the choppy stream, showed that the rocket had tried to light but it hadn’t been followed by the electrifying orange glow of nine Merlin engines in their square arrangement lit off and settled in for flight. Once again, onlookers predicted a scrub, but SpaceX was unwilling to call it quits. They worked the rocket’s issues down to the final minutes, pushing their T-0 to within fifteen minutes of the end of the window as they confirmed the startup issues that once again had aborted the launch and ensured the rocket was ready to fly anyway.

This time, the count was clean. The Coast Guard warned off the final boats, the range was clear, and the startup values didn’t exceed their adjusted parameters. The steady venting of the stage’s boiloff valves cut off as the stages built to flight pressure, and my heart hammered in my chest as they counted once again through the final fifteen seconds. This time, where there was smoke, there was also fire. Falcon’s engines howled to life in their box inside the cowlings, and the rocket lifted off. However, even as the camera showed the nine Merlin 1C engines, with more than two-thirds the thrust of a Saturn I rocket, carrying the vehicle skyward, things were going wrong. As soon as the rocket was released from the hold downs it twisted violently, turbo pump spin-ups and guidance alignments leading the vehicle to spin nearly 90 degrees in roll in the first meters of travel. It was smooth enough that I looked right past it at first, but more experienced eyes leaned forward in note, hoping that the engine bells hadn’t scraped anything they hadn’t as the rocket left the pad perfectly vertical but in an unintended attitude. The heart rates sent spiking by this were barely soothed by the voices over the launch net assuring “propulsion nominal” then “guidance nominal”. The rocket rose and began to arc, counting off the potential failures one by one as it passed them. After about ten seconds, the rocket was clear of the launch pad--if it fell back, the damage would be minimal to the pad and hanger. A few more seconds and the rocket was supersonic, darting its way through the sound barrier and over the ocean with a grace the K-1 had never known. A smooth curtain of fog hid the vehicle for the second as condensation flowed around it, then the rocket was through max-Q and pushing on to staging. For my part, I was pressed into my seat, my heart hammering as though I was facing every G the rocket was pulling as the loads built up.

The first stage, for its initial hiccups, cut off without problems. The engines conducted a staged cutoffs, reducing the loads by shutting down two of the outboard engines, then all at once the massive arrow of flame that was the Falcon 9’s plume cut out. I held my breath with thousands of others as the stream caught, buffered, and then resumed choppily to show the first stage falling cleanly away from the second stage’s massive Merlin Vacuum nozzle as cheers erupted from the factory floor in Hawthorne sufficient to overwhelm the announcer and the control center loop. However, Falcon wasn’t out of the woods yet. While the first stage drifted away, waiting passively for entry to carry it back to the ground where hopefully its parachutes would deploy to carry it safely to the water below, the second stage’s controls were fighting a problem. The first test motion of the roll-control nozzle on the MVac’s turbopump exhaust had gone well, but after returning to neutral, the nozzle had never moved again. While the roll control nozzle remained frozen in place, the camera began to build to a cinematic dutch angle of the ground below. The stage slowly rolled around its axis, gradually becoming more noticeable as the seconds passed and the vehicle gained speed in both orbital velocity and the uncommanded roll. The guidance held its course as best as it could, well enough some thought the spin might be intentional for stability, but as the roll built past 2 RPM, it was clear there was a problem. I held my breath along with thousands of others, and despite it all the worst didn’t happen. The cartwheeling camera angle persisted all the way through stage cutoff, but the stage steered through the issues to a safe cutoff, one confirmed within half an orbit to be within the promised statistical delivery window--despite the roll and other problems, Falcon had landed a bullseye on its first launch.

The first stage’s course, however, was not so rosy. While onlookers celebrated--as even Tim reluctantly conceded, NASA now had a pair of Delta II replacements--the last remains of the first stage were scattering themselves across the Atlantic. The Falcon 9 was proving that what the K-1 LAP made to look easy really wasn’t. For all Elon’s ambitions, the Falcon 9 really was a more conventional rocket, as its powerful shape showed. With none of the attitude control thrusters built into the K-1’s Launch Assistance Platform, the Falcon 9 core’s engines and aerodynamics hadn’t been enough to fight the tumble initiated by stage separation...not before the same aerodynamic forces tore the stage to hypervelocity shrapnel. The parachute canisters fell clear, burning shreds still clinging to the inside their packs--they had never had a chance to deploy. SpaceX had moved their own goalposts. While it had taken three Falcon 1 launches before the first success, they had a perfectly targeted maiden launch on their first launch day for Falcon 9...and the internet commentators judged them harshly and discussed the implications of the minor issues that had gone wrong: the two rolls, and the failed stage return even as they offered their congratulations and admitted SpaceX--like Rocketplane Kistler--might be more than just talk.

At SpaceX headquarters however, the minor setbacks were nothing compared to the exuberance of success. Ecstatic but drained by the day, Elon acknowledged in the press conference that there had been shortfalls in both schedule and mission, but bragged of the vehicle’s progress. They might be six months behind RpK in terms of access to space, and slightly longer behind with respect to Dragon readiness for flight to the station, but they believed they could catch up quickly. The second flight’s hardware was already ready to ship to Florida, along with the first flight Dragon for their orbital test flight before their first flight to station. Moreover, the launch was a critical step forward in locking down several major launch contracts. Some had been signed before the launch, but several others were still actively in negotiation and competition. The success of the maiden flight on the maiden flight would encourage these launch customers to sign up for SpaceX’s lower cost medium rockets and put launches into the order book and deposits into the back--launches which were in many cases to orbits the K-1 couldn’t reach with payloads which exceeded its physical size and payload capacity.

Elon counted on these launch deposits and the venture capital spurred by landing them when he responded to a reporter’s questions about the Falcon 9 landing. His answer was the first official SpaceX word that the landing had not succeeded and he acknowledged that SpaceX’s landing approach seemed like it could learn a few things from, as he put it, “techniques others have developed in the course of a decade of development.” However, he was bullish about the company’s chances of iterating their designs to achieve a similar successes which would one day even overshadow the K-1. SpaceX, he was sure, would have its day. For the moment, though, SpaceX had shot their bolt. The Falcon 9, their gleaming white arrow of a rocket, had flown and failed to return. It would be another six months before the second was ready to try again. In the meantime, the K-1 was less than a week from its third launch in six months.
 
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And they’re off! An excellent point about SpaceX’s capabilities compared to RpK’s: Payload size and where Falcon can put them. Since the two private darlings are now full steam ahead, and the highs of initial success fade away, sober heads must be wargaming next steps for K-1 and Falcon. K-1 is clearly limited in mass and volume, and one of those problems is easier to solve than the other. It’s gonna take some creative engineering to solve the volume problem. But RpK is nothing if not creative. Additionally the K-1 OV is unproven for anything beyond a 51ish degree 500x500ish km orbit, which isn’t where the real money is. Do they have plans to take it up to higher and higher orbits? Can it even survive those? We’ll just have to see.

On the other hand while SpaceX can ship in bulk (relatively speaking) and can get that mass to more locations, they can’t reuse their rockets. The good news is that as-is Falcon is pretty dirt cheap even expendable, so they’ll be okay... for now. But since I’m not anticipating RpK, ULA or even Arianespace to be static targets, the boys and girls at Hawthorne are gonna have to come up with something fast. Chutes? Lob-retro like the competition? Propulsive landing? And what of the upper stage? Fairings? All significant challenges that must be met if Musk and his janky ass company wants to keep skin in the game. In any case the 10s are shaping up to be yet more exciting than they are ITTL. Time will tell.

Keep up the good work!
 
June 10, 2010: K-1 COTS Demo-2 (Unpressurized Cargo Demo) Launch
Once again, NASA program officials and the world’s space press gathered in the remote southwest of Australia, fresh stamps on their passports. Ten thousand or more miles of travel and just six days separated them from their gathering in Florida for the launch of Falcon 9’s first flight, but here in the Outback the environment was different enough it seemed months had passed. For one, Woomera was certainly no Cocoa Beach. There was no oceanfront, no beaches, no minigolf with alligator petting zoos. Instead, the wildlife came straight to you, and the nightlife was barely extant. There were few bars other than the one the regulars were growing all too familiar with at the ELDO hotel, and that and the bowling alley were one of only a few retreats in town from the hotel rooms which retained all too many similarities with the barracks they had once been.

It had taken years for most of the regular reporters to settle into routines in Florida--some even lived nearby, and didn’t even have to rent hotels or spend nights away from family. Here in Woomera under the Outback sun, it took only three launches for a routine to calcify--the same sands, the same hotel rooms, the same military contractors from the air base, the same Woomera rocketry museum, though now featuring a few images some of the regulars had taken themselves. During the day, there were still a few novel attractions to seek out: wildlife tours or venturing out into the Outback to seek out places to watch the flights from downrange with remote cameras or even stakeouts during flight. Just outside the keep out zone, even a few kilometers downrange the rockets seemed to arc nearly directly overhead both coming and going--a unique angle on the K-1’s flight which was unavailable from most launch sites and which some of the photographers had begun to take advantage of to better show the launch and return of the LAP. A scrub on July 9th meant another two nights in the hotel, waiting for the next launch window while the K-1 personnel spent a full day reworking a ground support valve.

The nights around Woomera were slower than Florida, as the town shut down and options narrowed for entertainment. Indoors, there was the village bowling alley. Outdoors, there was one thing Florida couldn’t offer: searching the wonders of an impossibly clear southern hemisphere sky for stars and satellites with telescopes stored at the hotel. For those uninterested in these options or trying their luck with the hotel internet in their rooms, it left the hotel bar itself, which had become something of the nexus for over-lubricated discussions of the state of spaceflight. Its fridge was rapidly accumulating stickers as the new intermittent crowd staked a claim on the bar in a turf war with the constantly-present air base personnel and contractors. One RpK corporate logo on the fridge which had initially borne two Thales logos had spawned a NASA logo, then both the RpK internal and NASA external mission patches for K-1’s COTS Demo 1. Now, two more were added for COTS-Demo 2 over the course of another long evening as NASA officials, RpK staff members, space reporters, the occasional fanatical space-watching tourist, once again disrupted the quiet normalcy of the ELDO hotel bar, once more filling a hotel named for rocketry with talk of launch schedules and technology development. Hanging around the bar, the conversation mixed more prosaic topics like food, drink, sports, and personal life with Congressional op-eds, photography tips and tricks, Washington committee schedules, plant tours, and watercooler gossip overheard at various NASA centers. It was agreed that moving was a pain, that 2010 might be the Year of the Pitcher, and that NASA’s bets on commercial spaceflight seemed to be paying off. For less than a billion dollars of investment, NASA had funded two full vehicle development projects to completion. As the joke went around the bar, if you’d listened to Elon in the last week, COTS had funded two rockets, one of which was a revolutionary vehicle whose proven capability to replace Shuttle for flights to station would usher in a new era in which reuse would solve all of NASA’s problems...and the other of which was the K-1. Still, a tourist pointed out that for less than the cost of one Shuttle launch, NASA had gotten two new low-cost Delta II replacements whose potential seemed to extend far beyond their simple but important applications at ISS--though his argument about a Shuttle mission costing more than a billion dollars sparked a loud and boisterous debate over program overhead, marginal cost, and government accounting.

The next morning brought the chill of Australian winter as crews went about the business of bringing the K-1 to the pad again and spectators gathered both at the RpK site and at locations downrange. Half a world away from Florida’s summer heat, here it was single digits on the Celsius thermometer as technicians bundled in jackets hooked up the tow cart and began to roll the K-1 and the transporter erector the short drive back to the launch mount. No highs of 90 Fehrenheit here today--the weather brief was calling for cloudless skies, steady light to medium winds, and a high of 61 degrees Fahrenheit. On top of the K-1 for the COTS Demo 2 mission was the second of the two ISS payload modules that the ingenuity of RpK’s engineers had birthed. The Pressurized Payload Module flown on the previous mission was relatively simple: essentially, their standard length payload module with the standard heat shield door swinging open to reveal a CBM hatch on a pressurized internal space. On the Unpressurized Payload module, though, the CBM equipment had no hatch, just a fixed bulkhead mounting a forward facing camera and the various latches and bolting points needed for a CBM to function. Instead, once the module was berthed to station, a second hatch on the side of the payload module would swing open and allow access to an unpressurized volume--along with the telescoping Expanded Payload Module, the UPM demonstrated the original Kistler team’s creativity in “thinking inside the box” of the limited K-1 payload volume even as it highlighted the restrictions that box created and the need to potentially fix it for the future.

Similar to the volume on the Japanese HTV, though slightly smaller, the cargo bay of the UPM would mean that K-1 could carry external cargo like replacement station batteries, spares for the power and cooling systems, and (using a special pallet) external experiments to be mounted to the station’s ExPRESS Logistics Carriers (ELC-1 and ELC-2). While these were all capabilities the HTV could manage as well, having two such carriers meant any single vehicle’s stand-down wouldn’t shut down the ability to move external cargo to the station. Moreover, unlike the HTV’s expendable entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, the K-1’s internal bay was safely covered by the side hatch for the OV’s return to the ground. This not only enabled the UPM and its cargo pallets to be used again, but also would allow for the return of ELC payloads to the ground post-flight even after the retirement of Shuttle. Today, the exposed pallet was mounted, but carrying no cargo--the flight would just include demonstrations of cargo operations, not any actual transfers. There were, after all, fewer equivalents in the world of external cargo of the low-value consumables (the proverbial “Tang and T-shirts”) that the K-1 had carried up to station on its Demo 1 flight.

The minor delays of working up ground support equipment notwithstanding, the familiarity of the routines of Woomera were beginning to spread around the globe. For the second time, ISS program managers worked with RpK representatives to give final flight approval to the K-1 vehicle--an easy enough challenge, as almost all within RpK’s COTS team had NASA or legacy contractor experience. Randolph “Randy” Brinkley, the President of Rocketplane Kistler, had laid the groundwork of these relationships. As ISS program manager during the establishment of the station program, he had tremendous empathy for the concerns of his successor, William “Gerst” Gerstenmaier. With five years tenure as Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations on top of five years as either Manager or Deputy Manager of the ISS program, Gerst was tremendously influential in shaping NASA’s internal policies towards commercial vehicles arriving at “his” station. However, as much as ISS was Gerst’s, it was also Randy’s. Brinkley had overseen many of the modules now in orbit literally from drawing board to flight and designed many of the procedures Gerst now inherited. The relationship between the two as the K-1 proceeded through its demo operations was identified by many outsiders as respectful, candid, and critical to clearing roadblocks within NASA who were more concerned that a switch to commercial vehicle acquisition might mean a “cowboy” approach to engineering that could risk the safety of the station’s crew, infrastructure, or program-level goals.

Similar trust-building benefits came throughout the RpK org chart as employees worked with their NASA counterparts to complete open COTS Demo items and prepare for the second and final demonstration flight. Several of Jean-Pierre Boisvert’s flight control teams were former Shuttle, ISS, or ULA controllers, veterans of Atlas and Space Shuttle launches or people who had sat on console to monitor ISS on its long and winding path around the world. Thus, approaches and procedure reviews for robotics during the mission also went smoothly, aided by the design legacy which went into the vehicle itself--for instance, the systems the K-1 used to approach the station were almost identical to the Space Shuttle. Even novel issues like remembering to add half an hour to Woomera times to get to South Australia’s offset timezone were being worked around by NASA officials, Public affairs coordinators, and excited fans like myself. The rhythms of a K-1 launch were becoming routine--the rollout, ground umbilical checks, the two-hour fast loading of deeply cooled cryogenic propellants, and then the final half hour wait before flight.

As I watched all this take place in a brisk Australian winter afternoon from the quiet of a Midwestern midnight over the slightly-less-choppy RpK live stream, I mused that I was beginning to appreciate the grace of the K-1 itself--a rocket designed not just to fly but to return, and with the compromises that meant. Sure, its blunt nose was odd, but it was the price of a safe return and the engineering optimization of rockets that not only went up but had people who cared where they came down. The stumpy LAP first stage was the price of balancing first stage downrange velocity increments with the need for boostback to the launch site--more propellant spent downrange meant more required to fly back. Parachutes and airbags instead of wings were...inelegant, but simple and foolproof. Like Shuttle, it was a rocket designed for both launch and return, and like the Lunar Module, it was one where aerodynamics of ascent came second to performance afterwards. Like the bumblebee, it seemed like traditional rocketry would expect it to perform poorly, and yet it did not care. They were thoughts which betrayed a certain lack of sleep, I thought to myself as I turned them over, but probably not less true in the light of day.

Finally, the K-1 lifted off and I got what I’d waited into the night to see. Over a few pulse-pounding minutes, there was the excitement of liftoff and initial ascent. After staging, I had noticed that the tension in my body drained quickly once the NK-43 engine was confirmed to be lit and firing, a time to admire the serene view as the OV left the world behind and wait out the more exciting events of the LAP’s return. The tension was always highest through the LAP’s flip-and-burn maneuver, not truly falling off until the confirmation from the ground that the drogues and then mains were out and the LAP was gently drifting the final kilometers to the landing zone. Before long, though, it was all over--the LAP was landed again, the OV had burnt its main engine to near-depletion and conducted its initial automatic trim to coast to circularization. Without quite as much showmanship as Elon’s organization, Rocketplane Kistler had calmly and professionally staked their own claim to the position of standard-bearer for commercial spaceflight. As much as Elon might talk up Dragon, future launch contracts, and the value of the new and untried in disrupting the familiar, the K-1 team could simply point to results and their close relationships with the ISS program leadership. Now, for the second time, the K-1 OV was on its way to station. For Rocketplane Kistler, it was a milestone, but not even the biggest news they planned to announce that week--after all, SpaceX wasn’t the only one with contracts on the books, nor was Dragon the only new vehicle in development. Indeed, if you asked around the office of their headquarters in Oklahoma City, you’d find outside of the direct K-1 support team and their management, many of the rest of the company didn’t even consider SpaceX their biggest competition...and that competition needed a shakeup as much as SpaceX did. The tool for that was waiting in a hangar northwest of town for the K-1 to fly and the chance to lavish press attention on another part of their team.

At the post-launch press conference in Oklahoma City, Jean-Pierre, Randy Brinkley, and Deborah Faktor Lepore were running the stage, answering a barrage of press questions fawning over the K-1. Questions were diverse, ranging from the current flight’s demonstration objectives and schedule to reach station over the next two days to future plans for the K-1 in operational service (both to the station and for other unstated customers) and the expected service date of the recently-announced second stack under construction with ATK at Michoud. If you watched the replay closely, you could almost see Jean-Pierre Boisvert grind his teeth when George French took the stage midway through the press conference to announce that also in two days, Rocketplane would be hosting a major press event here in OKC to officially roll out and unveil their Rocketplane XP suborbital tourist spaceplane. It was a thrilling moment for the team at Rocketplane who had worked so many years to bring to readiness their answer to Branson and Paul Allen’s SpaceShipOne and Two, and French effortlessly captured the press attention for the rest of the conference with only a few sporadic questions relating to the K-1 and its mission to ISS following. The upstaging of one RpK project by another was a reminder that while Woomera and Michoud might be the home of the K-1, here in Oklahoma City, the company’s spaceplane aspirations were much closer to home.
 
June 13, 2010: K-1 COTS Demo 2 Berthing and Rocketplane XP First Rollout
There was much to be made of “firsts” in spaceflight, as Rocketplane Kistler had found themselves by their launch of the first fully reusable launch vehicle, and the first commercial spacecraft to reach the international space station. While investors, company executives, and reporters with TV cameras had packed the small viewing gallery of Mission Control OKC for the K-1’s first berthing to station and spilled out into the engineering offices, Jean-Pierre had been anticipating a smaller group for their second demo, especially as it was happening on a Saturday afternoon. Outside of those directly involved and the most dedicated of fans, seconds in spaceflight were rarely important. For the team most closely identified with the K-1, it occasionally difficult to be charitable to the “freaking plane” which had vacuumed up company dollars while the K-1 team (and minority shareholder ATK) had waited almost a year for the official go-ahead to begin fabricating their second flight vehicle for ISS and commercial operations. Sure, the combined company had taken a hit when the Space Ship Company and Virgin Galactic had managed to roll out SpaceShipTwo first, but the race for suborbital pride over the last eighteen months had been less immediate for the K-1 operations and contractor team than the sprint to the finish of getting K-1 flying, then flying out both ISS demo missions.

However, with the upcoming rollout of the plane and the K-1 OV once more at the cusp of the International Space Station’s Keep Out Sphere, Jean-Pierre was surprised to find himself actually getting into the anticipation for the big rollout party that evening. Partly it was looking forward to finally seeing their company roll out the Learjet-sized overgrown rocket fighter which the RpK team hoped would stake a claim as the queen of stratosphere. Partly it was that Jean-Pierre had to admit that there might have been something to the communications and public relations team’s idea of scheduling the rollout of the plane for the evening right after the K-1’s scheduled berthing on Flight Day Three of COTS Demo 2. The viewing gallery was again packed with press, investors, and guests waiting for the rollout event later in the evening and a smattering of RpK engineers and technicians enjoying the chance for a “family day” at the plant ahead of the festivities. With the plane’s exact progress and final livery carefully concealed from all but those directly integrating and painting it ahead of its moment in the spotlight, the press were lavishing their attention on Boisvert’s team as they oversaw berthing and working on human interest stories as small children trailed parents--and parents chased down older children rushing through the halls.

This time, there was little of the preliminary dancing in-and-out which had come on the previous mission three months before. Instead, working from the newly-fitted-out Cupola module, the station’s crew oversaw the K-1 as it steered itself directly in, working through a more limited checklist as the second ISS Demo mission came to its hold point below the station and the station’s Canadarm 2 reached out. From this vantage, there was little to show this was a different cargo module than the one which had been carried here by the same OV three months earlier--only the front hatch was currently open. Though the side hatch was built with the same redundancies as the front hatch, only the front hatch was critically needed for berthing. Thus, mission rules worked out by NASA and RpK called for the side hatch to remain closed until the K-1 OV was berthed to the station, and indeed for it to be closed again before the vehicle’s departure. Thus, if the highly-engineered redundant systems of the side door should fail, it would still be possible for the side hatch to be closed by means available at the station, all the way to the level of a manual EVA.

Opening the door would come another day, though. Even as the station’s arm brought the K-1 in for final berthing, attendees to the night’s big reveal were beginning to leave for the drive northwest to the small hangar where the Rocketplane had been under construction. By the time Jean-Pierre’s shift ended and he was turning over his console and control of the flight to the next shift’s flight director, the K-1 was securely berthed to the station, but the crowd had completed dissipated. Even as Jean-Pierre finished his paperwork, the PR intern assigned to see he made it to the rollout on time was hanging over his shoulder anxiously checking a clock.

The tarmac outside the hangar was crowded when they arrived, clustered tight against a rope line as waiters circulated with drinks and a buffet offered up dinner. Spot lights light the dusk as the sun fell below the horizon, then all eyes turned to the hangar as the senior Rocketplane leadership stepped up. They acknowledged everyone who had worked to get the company where it was, from Zubrin’s original Black Colt studies--indicating where the Mars master was investigating the in-situ resources available at the open bar--to Michael Clapp and many more. Much like the rollout of the K-1, this was a payoff for more decades of work. The speeches went on to that effect, trumpeting the company’s combined success and toasting its future. As they ended, the main spotlights cut out, strobes from low point up and out at the crowd cut in, and the hangar doors began to open.

The crowd erupted into cheers as Rocketplane XP, gleaming white and purple in its RpK livery, rolled out of the hangar behind a well-painted but otherwise normal airport tug. Jean-Pierre had no other thought as he saw it other than, “It’s gorgeous.” With twin engines tucked in behind a delta-shaped main wing, with a T-tail standing above it, it was an elegant dagger, composed in every way that the K-1 wasn’t. It just looked like a space plane should. Unlike the turbofans, the rocket bell fitted tonight was a mockup--the initial taxi and flight tests would be done as a conventional jet until the Polaris team finished their AR-36 test campaign. However, those flights would come soon and the tests were slated to have the engine ready for flight by the end of the year. The rest of the night was a blur. After coming to a stop, there was the unveiling of the name: “Pathfinder,” stenciled in script on the nose of the rocket near the RCS jets and innumerable photographs. The cabin was opened and press cycled in and out for what seemed like hours before the staff had their chance to do the same. Eventually, though, Jean-Pierre had to pull himself away to head back and sleep in order to get back to console in the morning. For years the K-1 team had to fight for funding with the Rocketplane team. But now, with orders on the books ready to be announced, a second vehicle under construction, and a K-1 on station completing its demonstration objectives ahead of revenue flights, it was easier to enjoy the night to admire the aerodynamic beauty the other side of the firm had assembled. Now, it really did feel like with both sides of the company together, they could push to a new dawn in the future of spaceflight.
 
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Unlike the turbofans, the rocket bell fitted tonight was a blur--the initial taxi and flight tests would be done as a conventional jet until the Polaris team finished their AR-36 test campaign.
Did you mean "mockup" or "stand-in"? Not sure what it would mean for an engine to be a blur.
 
How different does the Unpressurized K1 look as compared to the pressurized? Would any exterior difference be obvious?

The only visible difference is the side hatch, which you would not see from one side and would really only be visible when closed if you knew what you were looking for.
As @TimothyC says, you'd be able to see it subtly as a line in the thermal protection blankets on the sidewall--normally, they're diagonally placed and they alternate their endpoints, but the hatch would leave a is basically correct. The payload module's side would show a discontinuity around the hatch where there'd be a line in all the thermal blankets, though it might be hard to spot as different from the discontinuity where the payload module meets the main body of the OV. Annoyingly, RpK's renders don't really show this given the quality of the CGI of the era, but this is what the hatch would look like when open, giving an idea of how much room it offers. If you look a little below the hatch edge, you can see the discontinuity in the TPS where the OV meets the payload module--the hatch would look very similar when closed.

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Basically every ISS Orbital Replacement Unit (ORU) can fit inside it from the station's Shuttle-era large nitrogen tanks to radiator ammonia pumps. It's just barely incapable of taking a full ExPRESS Logistics Carrier (ELC), but it can handle individual units that would be mounted to an ELC both up and down.
 
June 16, 2010: Iridium Contract Awarded
It had been an action-packed two weeks for fans of commercial spaceflight. RpK’s second COTS demo showed the company’s rocket was mature and ready to serve the station’s full requirements from pressurized cargo to launch and return of critical Orbital Replacement Units (ORUs) and tanks after the retirement of the Space Shuttle. However, just a week before Falcon 9’s maiden launch, slow roll and all, had demonstrated that RpK wasn’t the only COTS competitor following through on their promises to serve the station, just the leader--and if one were to believe Elon Musk, only a temporary one. In the process, both COTS competitors were implicitly aiming to prove the value of their vehicles to future non-NASA customers and, perhaps equally as important, to prove the COTS model and pave the way for future NASA contracts along the same lines. For the Obama administration’s proposal to end development of the traditional cost-plus contracts awarded to the Ares I and Ares V Shuttle-Derived heavy lifters, the twin achievements couldn’t have come at a better time.

While they were the most visible events planned for the summer in RpK and SpaceX’s orbital programs, the twin launches were only one of several major plans both companies had in the works. RpK’s reveal and christening of the long-awaited Rocketplane XP flight test vehicle “Pioneer” had brought extensive coverage of the company’s suborbital ambitions and comparisons with the ongoing captive-carry testing of its counterparts, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo “Enterprise” and the XCOR Lynx rocketplane. Their respective designs, hardware progress, and test plans for the next year were posted, replied to, analyzed, re-examined, and critiqued in thousands of posts in magazines, blogs, and forums over the next few days. While the story was still sliding out of the aeronautical headlines, the twin COTS competitors made a joint announcement--one literally worth half as much as the COTS program and CRS funding both companies were still seeking.

For years, Iridium--the original low-Earth-orbital mega-constellation--had been gathering resources for their second-generation system, Iridium NEXT. On June 2, Iridium had announced a preliminary funding agreement for the $2.1 billion required to build the new system, along with immediate access to $53 million--enough to award their construction contract for 77 satellites and begin immediate actions to start construction. The build contract--the largest single order in the history of satellite construction--had been won by Thales Alenia of France after intense competition from Lockheed Martin. One of the critical factors had been the willingness of Coface, France’s export-import fund, to secure credit for Iridium’s fund raising, compared to the uphill battle Lockheed’s bid to build the satellites had faced from Coface’s US equivalents. Now, with the funding secured to begin immediate work on production setup in France and final assembly in the United States, Iridium was also ready to announce the second phase of its contracts: the launch of the satellites whose construction they had authorized.

The contract had been eagerly anticipated by industry insiders. The 70-plus comsats, even as small as they were, represented the better part of half a billion in launch contract value. Legacy geostationary launch providers like Ariane had known they were likely off the table for cost reasons, but bids had been received from almost every provider in the budget end of the industry from Ruscosmos to SeaLaunch. However, the COTS competitors had been widely viewed as leaders. SpaceX had built Falcon 9 from the ground up to offer lower launch costs than anything outside of Russia, with higher reliability, while the Kistler K-1 was literally designed to cost-effectively launch small LEO comsats such as the Thales’s EliteBus 1000 Iridium NEXT had selected. Which would emerge victorious would be a critical sign of the direction of the market: “minimum-cost design” expendable rockets from next-generation disruptors, or “second generation” reusable vehicles built by the legacy contracting structure under a new company’s direction. It was speculated that Elon Musk and the RpK executive suite had slept next to their phones in the days following the June 2nd funding and construction announcement waiting to see which would win what was speculated to be the largest single launch contract in history by dollar-value.

As it turned out, however, both companies had known for weeks the winner of the contract, but the results had been delayed for optimal timing of the announcement’s public relations value. SpaceX had proposed their Falcon 9 rocket, which would be able to launch ten Iridium NEXT satellites in a single launch for a per-satellite flight cost of roughly $6.4 million. However, the K-1 had managed to work with Thales Alenia and Lockheed to confirm that both competitors would be able to squeeze three satellites into the K-1’s payload envelope. With their contract price of $19.25 million, this left the K-1 bid offering a per-satellite launch cost of $6.42 million. Like COTS, Iridium NEXT would emerge as a prize too rich for any single company. In a press release on June 16, Iridum announced they were selecting both Rocketplane Kistle’s K-1 and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 as launch vehicles for their new system. With the bids essentially identical, Matt Desch and his team had leapt at the chance to spread their risk. While each company was awarded a minimum number of launches, valued at $135 million, the remaining $222 million in launch contracts would be divided between the companies as schedule and cost permitted. If either competitor was unable to meet the 2015 dates expected for the start of the launch campaign, the other could pick up any slack--and additional value of the total contract. Moreover, while both competitors were expected to have nearly two dozen flights under their belt by 2015, the two rockets shared no common hardware nor even a common launch site, meaning any issues with one would be unlikely to impact the other, isolating Iridium NEXT from schedule delays in all but the worst of situations. Neither SpaceX nor Rocketplane Kistler would be cut out of the largest contract in history...but neither would be fully satisfied with it, either.

The split award highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the two systems. The K-1 was undoubtedly the dominant system in NASA’s station logistics preference in 2010. For one, the vehicle was already flying. The first OV completed its second demo mission in late June and returned home to begin preparations for operational CRS flights. For a second, it would enable continuing Shuttle-style return and refit of external unpressurized equipment which the SpaceX Dragon couldn’t carry home--a critical element in minimizing development required to revamp station operations for the post-Shuttle era. However, most critically, a K-1 mission to the International Space Station hit the budget books at just under $30 million, even including NASA mission supervision overhead, additional payload module processing, and mission assurance tasks performed by RpK and their ATK subcontractors during vehicle preparation. For this price, they carried the same 3,000 kg of cargo which could be carried aboard a Dragon flight which cost over $130 million. Even though both compared favorably to the Shuttle, the K-1 was in a whole other category of cost-effective payload to the station given it needed neither a separate capsule to reach station nor assembly of a new first and second stage for every flight. With these capability and cost differences, Dragon was beginning to be thought of as an also-ran for station resupply inside NASA even before matters of corporate culture shock were considered. These were not inconsiderable, as stories accumulated within NASA comparing their experience with the free-wheeling California firm to the much more “traditional” team assembled by RpK and their legacy aerospace subcontractors. Unlike SpaceX’s mixed team of veteran industry renegades and F-1 race car designers, the K-1 was built by people who spoke NASA’s language and anticipated their every need. The only thing different from a traditional cost-plus contractor relationship, some mused, was the price.

However, for missions where no delivery to station was required, the benefits of the K-1 dropped off sharply. For Iridium bids, the K-1 suddenly reverted to offering only half the payload mass and roughly a third the payload volume of the Falcon 9’s traditional fairing. While the Falcon 9 was just barely capable of bidding on--and winning--contracts to launch payloads sized for the 3.3-metric-ton “lower berth’ slots on Ariane 5, the K-1 had no such luck. No commercial satellites launched to geostationary orbit were even under consideration which could fit within the roughly two metric ton capability they could fly to geostationary transfer orbit, a mission which would still require an expended kick stage. With Iridium NEXT money fresh in their pocketbooks and Rocketplane XP development winding down, Rocketplane Kistler (at the less-than-subtle insistence of some like minority shareholder ATK) had finally begun to turn their serious attention to the future of their orbital cash cow. Similar evaluations were already well-advanced at SpaceX, dissecting the parachute return failures on their maiden flight and the future of the Falcon 9 vehicle with the benefits of a stronger cash flow. Both companies were seeing their their first rounds of development finally paying off...which meant it was time to begin to invest in the future.

Sources:
Iridium Satellite Deal OTL: https://spacenews.com/iridium-selects-thales-alenia-build-iridium next-constellation/
Iridium Launch Contract OTL: https://www.spacex.com/press/2012/12/19/iridium-and-spacex-sign-major-commercial-launch-contract
COTS Costs: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20170008895.pdf
 
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K-1 Iridium Arrangement
So, to substantiate how nicely (but tightly) the K-1 holds the Iridium NEXT satellites, here's my evidence. The Thales-built satellites are based on their EliteBus 1000, which you can find a handy spec sheet about on the web here. Maximum bus mass is 850 kg, the Iridium NEXT historically clocked in about 750 kg. The satellite views in the report include dimensions in millimeters, which let me copy them over the K-1 payload envelope, as shown below. Three birds barely fit inside the acoustic dead-zone inside the extended payload bay...but they do fit. A second full tier doesn't fit in either mass of volume, sadly. I looked at trying to fit a fourth on top, facing upwards as shown. While it fit, thanks to how the solar wings fold, I didn't think the dispenser solution and launch acceleration axis would be optimal, as that's not the way the EliteBus is designed to fly, and it wouldn't leave much overhead in the payload limits for the dispenser. Note that interestingly the dispenser system for K-1 can be reused, as it should fit inside the retracted Extended Paylaod Module volume for return.

K-1_Iridium.png
 
Interesting that Iridium goes with both companies. Also interesting that the ability of Kistler to abort a launch and recover the payload doesn’t come up—I guess the odds of a failure that makes orbit impossible but landing possible are too slim to matter.
 
Interesting that Iridium goes with both companies. Also interesting that the ability of Kistler to abort a launch and recover the payload doesn’t come up—I guess the odds of a failure that makes orbit impossible but landing possible are too slim to matter.
Yeah, it's not impossible to be in a situation that makes that possible, but it's challenging to find the timing that makes it happen. This is especially true for payloads like the Iridium birds which require the Extended Payload Module, as the TPS on the sidewall of the telescoping section if only good for ascent, not for return. It comes more down to cost and spreading the risk.

As for spreading the contract between two firms, they did plan to even IOTL--they contracted to launch a few on Dnepr IOTL for testing, but got caught up in launch delays after the Ukraine situation:
Iridium has also been a victim of Dnepr delays. The company originally planned to launch its first two next-generation satellites on a Dnepr to test them in orbit before beginning large-scale deployment of the constellation on Falcon 9 launches. Iridium ultimately decided to start with the Falcon 9, successfully launching its first 10 satellites Jan. 14.
https://spacenews.com/iridium-buys-eighth-falcon-9-launch-shares-with-earth-science-mission/

Dnepr is pretty comparable to K-1 in payload, though it's slightly more expensive (~$29m compared to the ~$19-20m of K-1) and its smaller payload fairing meant it could only fit two Iridium satellites compared to the K-1's three ITTL.

You can argue that putting all of them on the K-1 has lower per-launch risk of LoV and that the K-1 is ready to fly, but it's slightly more expensive (~$700k over the contract) and requires both more frequent and more expensive trips for integration at the launch site (it'd take 20+ K-1s to do what takes just 7-8 Falcons, and you have to fly your site team to Australia instead of Vandenberg every time). Ultimately, I think an even split of the initial value with the split of the rest decided by essentially a fly-off gives Iridium protection against delays by either party for little cost either way. Besides, as the author, I'm writing this because of the interesting foil RpK makes for SpaceX, and this keeps them both scrapping like true rivals. :)
 
July 15, 2010: Senate Compromise on NASA Budget Introduced in Committee for Commerce, Science, and Transportation
While NASA’s COTS competitors could assure their future through signing contracts and securing funding to set their own directions, the agency itself would have to find its future in other ways. For most of the previous year, lobbyists of all stripes had worked the halls of congress pushing their preferred plans while observers had watched for signs of progress. While the House had jerked into several rounds of spasmodic action in knee-jerk rejection of the President’s proposals, the Senate’s approach had been equally negative, but more considered. Orrin Hatch, Richard Shelby, and Bill Nelson had served as the three anchors weighing the matter of a Senatorial response to the president. The President’s plans had initially been dead on arrival, given the complete abandonment of post-Shuttle heavy lift development in favor of large amounts spent on a series of low-level foundational studies on HLV and exploration-enabling technologies, ranging from lunar precursor spacecraft to staged combustion kerosene engines and from propellant depots to autonomous orbital docking. Crewed exploration would be relegated to a low-cost commercial development based on the COTS model. In a few years, these elements could be assembled into a new program ready for cost-effective exploration beyond Earth orbit, whether to the Moon or to Mars, with the latter preferred. It would make for a clean sheet for spaceflight development, where the necessity of such sacred cows as NASA-lead launch and crew vehicles could be re-examined.

However, sacred cows were sacred for a reason. Terminating the vast majority of funding for Johnson Space Center and particularly Marshall Space Flight Center and replacing it with a series of short term, high-intensity projects represented an unacceptable path forward for the Senators representing those states and accustomed to a regular rhythm of consistent Federal spending. Even the President’s speech April 15th at Kennedy Space Center, where he had called for a NASA funding increase and shown more willingness to compromise on the development of the Orion capsule and potentially some kind of future heavy lifter, was no replacement for the Space Shuttle and Constellation contracts on which powerful interests in space lobbying had staked their future. Or so, at least, was the common understanding. In fact, at least two key power centers had seen their opinions swayed by the successes of the COTS launchers over the previous months, and were now more receptive to the President’s message...suitably reinterpreted, of course.

The first was Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, one of the senior members on the Committee for Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Initially, Nelson had supported a plan which would see Orion re-tooled for a LEO role and replace the troubled Ares V not with the vague promise of a new heavy lift program in the future but with a new Shuttle-derived lifter to begin work immediately, transitioning from the Ares launcher contracts. After all, it would be irresponsible to simply terminate all US crew launch capability with the STS-134 mission and suffer a gap while taking a risk on commercial development of something as complex as a crew capsule. Not only would it place excessive risk on the outcome of a commercial crew program, any long gap in launches from Kennedy Space Center would put the livelihoods of the entire skilled Shuttle workforce at risk, both in Florida and throughout the country. However, Nelson saw a future in the squat vehicle brought to KSC, and had been reaching out to his contacts in NASA to better understand its implications. On the surface, the K-1 seemed like it might truly be the “second generation” of vehicle to replace the Space Shuttle he himself had once ridden to space, and his contacts had also marvelled over the vehicle’s potential future for the ISS program and the company’s shared win of the Iridium launch contract. As far as Nelson was concerned, the biggest problem with the K-1 was that it didn’t fly from Florida--it was even employing plenty of Shuttle-veteran technicians and engineers at Michoud for vehicle assembly and in Woomera for turnaround operations. If reusability was the path forward, it was critical to the interests of the launch operators in Florida to be ready to follow that path. However, in the meantime, it was necessary to ensure NASA--and Florida--had a backup to fill any gap in manned operations. Of course,if a way could be found to address these concerns, Bill Nelson was willing to be the chief architect and power broker for a Senate compromise much closer to the president’s vision than many had initially believed possible.

The second was at least some factions within Shuttle contractors themselves, particularly ATK. ATK, after all, had increased their investment in Rocketplane Kistler gradually to the better part of a quarter-billion dollars over the duration of K-1 development, most of which they had then received back in vehicle construction and operation contracts. The results spoke for themselves: ATK advertisements in trade papers had for several months been making substantial use of their status as a critical member of the contracting and operational team for both the first and second reusable orbital launch systems. While the company’s massive Utah solid rocket operations were a strategic resource, they also had never proven as cost-effective in service as NASA had hoped. Meanwhile, any program manager knew that development and qualification were the richest prizes. After 5-segment solid rocket booster development was complete, spending from Marshall’s development programs would fall rapidly as any program using the boosters transitioned to production, and the company’s staff in Huntsville and Utah supporting Marshall’s development efforts would have less to do--and more importantly less work for which to bill the government. With a second K-1 LAP and OV under construction at Michoud by their team and the K-1 proving its worth, ATK was considering that there might be value in a heavy-lift technology program leading to a clean sheet design (with higher expected development budgets) they had perhaps the best chance of winning, provided of course that any such program also saw the preservation of the critical Utah solid rockets program in the interim.

Other contractors like Lockheed and Boeing also sensed a potential sea change in spaceflight...and one which could be quite profitable if it meant the funding for a clean-sheet development program spread with cost-plus contracts. After all, the success of the K-1’s roughly $2 billion development--and of the vehicle itself after its introduction--showed that it might be...shortsighted to consider only a Shuttle-derived heavy lifter for the heir to Shuttle. However, there was a need for some level of projects to continue the Shuttle legacy and assuage concerns over the transition unless a new vehicle program was developed immediately. Ideally, these would leverage the investments already made by the Constellation program and feed into the foundations of a future program, even one which might play with the future of heavy lift rockets, whether that might indeed turn out to be Shuttle-derived expendables or at least partially reusable rockets.

The result was that on July 15, 2010, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation took up and unanimously passed a new bill on to floor, sponsored by the Committee’s chairperson and co-sponsored by three space-state senators including Bill Nelson, whose office had done much of the work of pulling together the draft language. Though described in their press conferences press as a "compromise" with the President's broad vision, was in truth different in almost every way. The Constellation program would be officially ended, but critical elements of it would survive--particularly those of relevance to space state senators. A new "multi-purpose crew vehicle" was called for as a NASA-developed backup for commercial crew development, to fly on an "existing or lightly modified vehicle no later than 2014." This language was widely (and correctly) interpreted that though Ares I might be cancelled, Orion would remain a going concern with launch on some man-rated version of an EELV. The initial request of $850 million for Commercial Crew was cut by some $350 million not only to pay for the “new” MPCV development but also to allocate funding as required to provide for launch vehicle and pad modifications. Thus, though more than $500 million in funding was allocated for a commercial crew development program, in practice it would only be allowed to take over from NASA's internally developed capsule if the new providers could prove their worth--or their political capital. In the meantime, funding would continue to be funneled to JSC for MPCV development with a new line item for MSFC to transition Ares I contracts "as practical" to support management of the new crew launch vehicle.

Similarly, though the Ares V was to be officially cancelled, several major components of the program would survive under the new "compromise" in unexpected places. The compromise called for NASA to begin immediate investigation of alternative HLV designs, with a special focus on preserving options for improved Shuttle-derived Heavy Lift Vehicles as well as Shuttle-derived or clean-sheet reusable HLVs which was also reflected in the priorities shown inside a swollen $1.9 billion “Exploration Research and Development” budget line. While the initial $1.5 billion 2011 technology development program list suggested by the President's budget had called for only a single HLV-related project (funding for a US-built staged-combustion hydrocarbon engine suitable for heavy lift vehicle first stages, with possible joint NASA and DoD applications in replacing the RD-180) the program list recommended by Congress was replete with several HLV demonstrators, some explicitly written to essentially carry over tasks from Ares I and V development into the new era until and unless they became unnecessary due to a new clean-sheet vehicle program which could then absorb their funding and continue to see it spent in the proper districts. Perhaps the most egregious of this was the funding of “Large Segmented Solid Rocket Development” among the “new start” 2011 technology demonstrators--essentially a budget line specifically to carry over work on developing, testing, and qualifying 5-segment solid rocket motors unchanged from Ares I and Ares V though they would now be officially divorced from any specific vehicle program. A similar program added alongside the hydrocarbon engine called for a demonstration of “full and rapid reuse of a hydrogen/oxygen engine with first and second stage applications.” Though phrased as having applications for a future RLV, in fact the program essentially amounted to a program to roll out and test RS-25 evolutions envisioned but never implemented during Shuttle, culminating in a 10-firings-in-10-days test stand sequence.

The result was that the Senate committee patted itself on the back for funding this budget line more than 25% “above and beyond” the President’s original request of $1.5 billion in 2011. In subsequent years, the story was similar. While the President’s plan would have seen a rise to $2.6 billion for Exploration Research and Development programs in 2012 and beyond, the Senate’s “compromise” instead authorized more than $3 billion--essentially the same amount spent in previous years on Constellation launch vehicle development. However, the actual amount to be spent on any of the programs the President’s budget had envisioned (such as propellant depots, autonomous navigation, in-space propulsion, and other systems) amounted to less than 50% of the original amount--only enough to begin one large development project and a few smaller ones, with the rest of the massive budget line siphoned off by programs which functionally kept the most pork barrel elements of the Constellation launch vehicle projects on life support.

There were even wins for those hoping that the Shuttle itself, not a successor, might be granted a last-minute reprieve. Ever since the Columbia accident, NASA had a standing policy of STS-3XX “Launch on Need” missions. For the “Launch on Need” mission, if any issue were to be found with the thermal protection tiles or other systems of a Shuttle on orbit, NASA would execute a standing plan to have the next Shuttle stack moved through an accelerated preparation to launch to bring the endangered crew home safely. With STS-134 as the last approved mission, NASA had been forced to cobble together odds and sods to ensure the same protections could be supplied, pairing the orbiter Atlantis with ET-122, to form the STS-335 mission stack. ET-122’s story was complex--it had been completed and in storage at the Michoud facility when Hurricane Katrina had slammed into New Orleans, and portions of the roof of Storage Cell A holding cell containing ET-122 had fallen in, along with all the other damage to the facility, its staff, their families, their homes, and their city. For more than five years, the nearly-complete tank had been retained, sidelined as the facility and the city had recovered, rebuilt, and moved on. Now, with Lockheed needing to produce one final tank, ET-122 was inspected and refit to become the core element to enable STS-335 to fly if required. It would become the final External Tank to ship from Michoud later that fall if all went well. In recognition of the effort which had allowed Michoud to recover from the disaster and recertify the massive tank for flight if required, on June 9th, NASA officials authorized Michoud to fit ET-122 with a special insignia on its intertank access door showing a Space Shuttle stack flying through the eye of a hurricane. However, the effort to get ET-122 and Atlantis ready for one final launch seemed to be more than the agency was willing to let go to waste. The existence of a fully-assembled Shuttle stack had proven tempting, and NASA had been internally studying ways to convert the STS-335 mission into an operational flight ever since conceiving of the plan, mostly focusing on what costs would be added in flying hardware already completed for STS-335 and which would need to be assembled ready for flight anyway and how to provide any “STS-135” crew aboard Atlantis with their own emergency backup. The Senate’s compromise bill embraced the idea, and the bill which the committee passed to the full Senate included an official recommendation that the STS-335 mission be converted into an operational flight if it didn’t end up needing to serve its emergency recovery role.

In spite of the continuation of major elements of Constellation and the addition of another Shuttle flight to the manifest, the President’s policy team and supporters for alternative spaceflight approaches could also claim some major wins from the bill. First and foremost was the lack of an actual integrated SDHLV program--against many predictions, Congress had been satisfied with sufficient pork to tide them over a few years until an HLV with more modern (and expensive) development could begin, whether that be a Shuttle-derived vehicle or a new and reusable one. In the meantime, the Ares V was officially cancelled and NASA would have no official HLV program of record. Additionally, while Orion might have gotten a reprieve, the Ares I vehicle would still be cancelled and in the process free up funds for other projects like beginning an actual commercially competed crew vehicle development program, which would aim to introduce multiple new crew alternatives--a powerful opportunity for “NewSpace” to show they could do the job of vehicle development as well as NASA’s legacy sole-source contracting approaches, though they would have to out-bid legacy contractors to win the opportunity. Additionally, while many of the major technology development projects the President’s plan had envisioned like inflatable modules and autonomous rendezvous and docking would be postponed, enough funding had been left behind when the most important of the Constellation development projects had begun to drink from the Congressional trough to begin at least one or two major development efforts with an aim to fly flagship-class experiments to space before 2014. For those advocating for reusable launchers or the lack of purpose for a new super-heavy launch vehicle, the exciting of these options was the suggestion of finally flying the long-proposed demonstration of long-term storage and transfer of cryogenic propellants as part of a focused development program aiming to begin with subscale testbeds like CRYOTE and move to a full-scale Centaur-derived mini-depot.

It was a compromise which fully satisfied no one, but which pleased just enough people sufficiently to secure their votes. In the week after the bill passed from the committee to the Senate floor, debate over its language and implications, its odds of passage, and its suitability or lack thereof would run white-hot over the internet. With only a few weeks left until the August recess, it remained to be seen whether the full Senate would embrace the compromise and whether the House--whose own NASA bills had been much more of a knee-jerk total rejection of the President's commercial focus and Constellation cancellation in their entirety--would be willing to follow the Senate’s lead. With the future of NASA and the broad scope of American spaceflight hanging in the balance, NASA employees and industry advocates representing all sides on the debates began to take to phones, op-eds, letters, and lobbying visits to Washington to air grievances or voice carefully couched support of the Senate or House bills. In the meantime, however, the COTS competitors contemplated the futures they might see and were little inclined to rest on their laurels. If NASA didn't plan the future they desired to see, they would just have to build it themselves...
 
Ding-dong the SDLV Witch is dead! Well, mostly sort of kind of dead in a politically expedient way. Still, NewSpace fans rejoice for the day I have been waiting for has arrived!

Beyond Senator Nelson having a change of heart compared to OTL, the big thing that sticks out to me is engine development (and of course potential applications for future reusables). Strikes me as being SLI Part 2: Staged Combustion Reusable Bugaloo. Here's hoping the RS-76 comes back from the dead with a vengeance! Might just be me, but that particular engine strikes me as having wonderful potential use on a future iteration on the K-1 from RpK. Requirements for a reusable staged-combustion hydrocarbon engines also remind us of a certain bald-headed book-selling billionaire specter with his particular brand of commercial launch in the shadows. Still, the Senate seems happy with its plan to have its cake and eat it too: Fat contracts to keep ex-Shuttle workers happy, even if their work amounts to no immediate HLV, and supporting upstart commercial launch firms with promises of crew vehicles to ISS. Timelines may change, but politicians are always the same :p

Next is the red-headed orphan step-child Orion, still kicking just like in our timeline and now due for its first flight onboard an EELV instead of Ares "Eau du BBQ Parachutes" I. I'm wondering now if the relevant industry groups and companies will focus their efforts on ensuring that US crew access is through Orion launched on a Delta or Atlas Heavy. Expensive as all hell, not even close to touching dirt cheap Soyuz launches, but definitely closer to fruition than commercial crew vehicles. In theory at least, aerospace has a wonderful way of shredding deadlines and entry-into-service dates to pieces. And then there's the elephant in the room: If SpaceX and RpK decide to duke it out once more for commercial crew, what will their vehicles look like? We all know Dragon 2 from our timeline, but it sounds like RpK will have to dig up those old proposals and drawings for a K-1 crew vehicle. I for one am pulling for the "eyeballs directly into the reentry plasma" design, if only for the lulz.

Good writing and good work as usual! Keep it up!
 
As I read it, there's still a lot of Congressional Inertia forcing Ares Remnants to remain hooked up to a lifeline, but still some changes here relative to OTL, mainly a greater willingness to see Commercial Launch & Services - hence the higher-than-OTL $500M vs $350M IIRC. K-1 responsible for this?

that though Ares I might be cancelled, Orion would remain a going concern with launch on some man-rated version of an EELV

Atlas V or Delta IV being considered in this instance? I'd say Atlas V given the Delta IV's tendency to ignite the free Hydrogen during the engine ignition sequence. N32 or N42 would be my guess for an LEO Orion.


In the meantime, however, the COTS competitors contemplated the futures they might see and were little inclined to rest on their laurels. If NASA didn't plan the future they desired to see, they would just have to build it themselves...

I...get the feeling Elon will still be wanting to pursue his own agenda here. How he fares...
 
Atlas V or Delta IV being considered in this instance? I'd say Atlas V given the Delta IV's tendency to ignite the free Hydrogen during the engine ignition sequence. N32 or N42 would be my guess for an LEO Orion.
I imagine Delta IV because of the cost of developing Atlas V Heavy (and there's no way you can launch Orion on anything short of a Heavy). They looked into it OTL and gave up because of the cost of all the modifications needed, but if Congress wants it...
 
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