Kistling a Different Tune: Commercial Space in an Alternate Key

Early April, 2010: OV Unberthing and Return to Earth
  • Originally, the K-1 demo had been set to spend a full month berthed to the International Space Station. In spaceflight as in so many other realms though, few plans survived fully intact through their entire execution. The launch of STS-131, and an MPLM full of scientific and station support payloads, had been anticipated as something which might drive changes to the mission. To accommodate the Shuttle’s tail and clear room for the MPLM to be removed from the cargo bay, the K-1’s bulk had been placed at Node 2’s zenith port. Similarly, the arrival and much shorter stay of the Space Shuttle would monopolize crew time, so plans had been made to focus crew efforts on the K-1 prior to the STS-131 arrival (or, should the launch of RPK-D been delayed, following Discovery’s departure). With the K-1’s launch and berthing proceeding relatively trouble-free, the unloading of the low-criticality supplies such as surplus crew meals which had been carried up and the loading of the garbage which would constitute the down-mass demonstration for the mission were already complete by the start of April.

    According to STS-131’s original mission plans, the crew were to capture high-resolution imagery of the K-1 berthed to Node 2 zenith during their fly-around of the station prior to docking. The imagery of the K-1 OV had been specifically requested by RpK, who had plans for it as marketing and promotional material documenting their first flight to the station, and both NASA and RpK public relations representatives had salivated over the “passing of a torch” between the Space Shuttle and the first flight to the station by a new reusable vehicle. However, NASA’s PR team had found bigger fish to fry. NASA had found reasons which lead them to want the K-1--both the LAP and the OV--present in Florida in mid-April. There were operational concerns with unberthing the K-1 OV while the Space Shuttle was present, at least on the first mission. Even if the STS-131 mission launched on time, the OV would thus be “stuck” in space until it departed, leaving only a few days to get to Florida for the planned events.

    This desire had already seen the LAP on its way inside the Beluga to head to the Cape. However, the question of the OV’s itinerary had been extensively discussed. It would take at least a few days after landing at Woomera to get the OV ready to ship, cutting loose the parachutes and removing propellants from the OV before transporting it overland to RAAF Woomera’s hangars to be loaded into the Beluga, which would then take several more days to move it Stateside. Thus, if the K-1 was going to be on-station for its photo-op with the Shuttle, it couldn’t make its date in Florida. In desperation, several more off-the-wall options were considered, including landing the OV stateside to begin with. However, the best prospect to meet schedule was ruled out--despite the convenience of simply parachuting the K-1 into Cape Canaveral in the nick of time like a movie star, the OV’s parachute landing system and relatively large landing dispersion meant there was nowhere within the cramped boundaries of the Cape which could provide the required 1.8 kilometer-diameter landing ellipse free of obstructions on short notice. Other options for landing the K-1 somewhere in the US to minimize the airlift needs were considered, but discarded--while Edwards Air Force Base was effectively ready to receive the K-1 without modifications to the facilities, it would require changes to the K-1’s software to be made in short order, and hardware would have to be airlifted from Woomera to Edwards in order to deservice the OV after flight and prepare it for loading into the Beluga. The same was true of the RpK facilities at Burns Flats, which couldn’t even offer the level of facilities available at Edwards, though it had already been considered as an alternate landing site for the K-1. NASA and RpK mission planners and PR teams worked to square the circle but came to hard realities: the K-1 OV simply couldn’t attend both events--they had to pick between the “passing of the torch” and imagery of K-1 at the station taken by the Shuttle and the schedule of events planned for the Cape. After weighing the plans, the latter was assigned higher priority, and the K-1 OV’s time on station was cut short, with promises to the RpK team that NASA would do their best to arrange for future imagery of a Shuttle and K-1 on-station at the same time if possible.

    The K-1 OV was dutifully prepared for departure and unberthed from the station on April 5th, the same day as Discovery’s launch, and once more floated free heading for home with a successful flight behind it. Though Jean Pierre’s team had monitored it carefully, the trick of plotting a course from the station’s orbit to a landing at Woomera using precisely the right amount of propellant to land with dry tanks was one that the K-1’s avionics could handle almost in its sleep. By the time Discovery docked to the station on April 7th, the initial phases of preparing the OV for shipment were wrapping up, and the Beluga had arrived back from its delivery of the LAp to the Cape. By the time the crew of STS-131 and Expedition 22 set to work to unload the MPLM on the 10th of April, the K-1 was arriving at the Cape. There were precious few days to prepare it for an important presentation, then both it and the LAP would have to ship once more back to Woomera to begin to prepare for their next flight to the station. This had been planned for June, but of course plans in spaceflight were hardly immune from changes. It would depend on the situation when the K-1 LAP and OV were able to return to Woomera and begin preparations for their next flight.
    April 15, 2010: Obama KSC Visit
  • The weather for April 15th could not have been better. The atmosphere seemed determined to match the efforts which had been spent by mere mortals to prepare for the visit of the President of the United States to Kennedy Space Center, offering up a perfectly blue sky and weather almost perfectly comfortable. Only the odd patch of cumulus spotted the sky, enhancing the scenic backdrops as Air Force One landed at the Cape and the President and his entourage wandered through the arranged sights. The VAB, where the Space Shuttle Atlantis had been lifted and mated to the External Tank only days before in preparation for the STS-132 mission, drew the usual awe at the scale of the equipment contained within and the skill and care of the crews working there. However, for all that operations of the shuttle preparation crews as usual were proceeding smoothly and with regularity, there was little time left for them to practice their trades--a fact not far from the minds either of the workers in the VAB as the President was walked around the building, nor of Senator Bill Nelson or other representatives of the Florida Congressional delegation trailing along in the procession and pausing to pose for photographs. There were precious few Shuttle flights left, and they and their constituents needed more than vague promises--they needed assurances of a future.

    The staff at the VAB couldn’t help feeling that the President didn’t value them much, especially given how much more time the President spent outside the main KSC facilities, touring the flown K-1 stages, displayed outside at the Skid Strip, and the Falcon 9 rocket being readied for its first launch in the upcoming months. The President’s plan, they worried, saw no future in their jobs--only in these new vehicles. Their costs might have been low, but so were their capabilities and their flight histories. Bill Nelson’s presence in the tours caught more than a few eyes. Press pool photographers eagerly captured shots of SpaceX’s Elon Musk leading the president, with his coat slung in a carefully calculated impression of casualness over his shoulder, around the confines of LC 41, where the maiden Falcon 9 rocket awaited. However, the canny noted , Nelson talking to SpaceX executives about the licensing processes for preparing the LC 41 site for operations and some of the crew who had left positions with USA, ULA, Sea Launch, or NASA itself to go work for Musk’s startup. While George French and other RpK worthies walked the President around the displays of the K-1 stages near the skid strip, Nelson talked with some of the engineers about the issues they had found in trying to land the K-1 OV from orbit at KSC in the unsuccessful quest to avoid having to land in Australia and then fly around the Earth by aircraft, and offered to have his office look into surveys to see how Florida might solve the problems in the future.

    The nine Merlin 1D engines in their squared off arrangement at the base of the Falcon 9 and the line of NK-33s down the center of the tubby K-1 LAP expressed clear power, the power behind their hosts’ reach to orbit. The power Nelson offered to his hosts--the rocket companies, and the President--was less apparent, but no less important. However, all engines had to be primed for them to support a successful launch with their powers, and Bill Nelson was no different. Even with what he’d seen and heard today, he hadn’t yet seen enough in the President’s vision to offset the damage that no heavy lifter and no crew launch from Kennedy Space Center for the better part of a decade might bring--both in his district, and to the space program as a whole. However, as the President took to the stage, Nelson found himself more thoughtful of what a compromise might look like around the President’s ideas than he had expected to be when the plans were originally crossing his staffer’s desks a little over two and a half months before.

    The sight of the newest reusable vehicle in the world, presented for their inspection as a trophy or tribute, might have also been on the thoughts of KSC staffers as they were ushered into the audience for the President’s speech. His words echoed out over the hangar. He began with the usual platitudes about the history of the space program, and how it had inspired many who had come and stood in gatherings like these before him. However, he also stood there as the person who came promising changes and cuts to what had been some of the most important programs people in the room were looking forward--the staff and visitors on the floor as well as the senators and representatives standing on the podium with him--and he faced this audience’s concerns head on with straightforward and clear-cut language, defending his positions even as he acknowledged what they might mean for people watching him that day.

    "...So let me start by being extremely clear: I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future. (Applause.) Because broadening our capabilities in space will continue to serve our society in ways that we can scarcely imagine. Because exploration will once more inspire wonder in a new generation -- sparking passions and launching careers. And because, ultimately, if we fail to press forward in the pursuit of discovery, we are ceding our future and we are ceding that essential element of the American character.”

    “I know there have been a number of questions raised about my administration’s plan for space exploration, especially in this part of Florida where so many rely on NASA as a source of income as well as a source of pride and community. And these questions come at a time of transition, as the space shuttle nears its scheduled retirement after almost 30 years of service. And understandably, this adds to the worries of folks concerned not only about their own futures but about the future of the space program to which they’ve devoted their lives.“

    “But I also know that underlying these concerns is a deeper worry, one that precedes not only this plan but this administration. It stems from the sense that people in Washington -- driven sometimes less by vision than by politics -- have for years neglected NASA’s mission and undermined the work of the professionals who fulfill it. We’ve seen that in the NASA budget, which has risen and fallen with the political winds.“

    “But we can also see it in other ways: in the reluctance of those who hold office to set clear, achievable objectives; to provide the resources to meet those objectives; and to justify not just these plans but the larger purpose of space exploration in the 21st century.”

    "All that has to change. And with the strategy I’m outlining today, it will. We start by increasing NASA’s budget by $6 billion over the next five years, even.." The president paused briefly over the applause, as the audience had expected him to finish the thought there, then continued over the clapping. "I want people to understand the context of this. This is happening even as we have instituted a freeze on discretionary spending and sought to make cuts elsewhere in the budget…”

    Faces looked on. They had applauded the budget raise--of course they had--but the question remained of what that money would be spent on--and this was perhaps more truth than they were used to getting from politicians come to make grand speeches on the backs of the history of the space program. If not neglected, what new plans could be offered to depend on that financing, if indeed the President put his efforts into working with the Congress to make it happen? Obama continued to lay out his plans:

    “...We will extend the life of the International Space Station likely by more than five years, while actually using it for its intended purpose: conducting advanced research that can help improve the daily lives of people here on Earth, as well as testing and improving upon our capabilities in space. This includes technologies like more efficient life support systems that will help reduce the cost of future missions. And in order to reach the space station, we will work with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable.”

    The statement brought applause, but the President continued, knowing he wasn’t speaking just to the audience in this room, but those back in Congress and around the nation, who had watched the first K-1 launches and the preparations of the Falcon 9 rocket with skepticism, or even with concern. He and his speechwriters knew that in spite of the applause, some of those opposed to that plan were right here in the room with him, might indeed be sharing the stage.

    “Now, I recognize that some have said it is unfeasible or unwise to work with the private sector in this way. I disagree. The truth is, NASA has always relied on private industry to help design and build the vehicles that carry astronauts to space, from the Mercury capsule that carried John Glenn into orbit nearly 50 years ago, to the space shuttle Discovery currently orbiting overhead. By buying the services of space transportation -- rather than the vehicles themselves -- we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met. But we will also accelerate the pace of innovations as companies -- from young startups to established leaders -- compete to design and build and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere.”

    “In addition, as part of this effort, we will build on the good work already done on the Orion crew capsule. I’ve directed Charlie Bolden to immediately begin developing a rescue vehicle using this technology, so we are not forced to rely on foreign providers if it becomes necessary to quickly bring our people home from the International Space Station. And this Orion effort will be part of the technological foundation for advanced spacecraft to be used in future deep space missions. In fact, Orion will be readied for flight right here in this room.”

    “Next, we will invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced “heavy lift rocket” -- a vehicle to efficiently send into orbit the crew capsules, propulsion systems, and large quantities of supplies needed to reach deep space. In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models; we want to look at new designs, new materials, new technologies that will transform not just where we can go but what we can do when we get there. And we will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it.” The president continued, speaking over the applause that statement brought. “And I want everybody to understand: That’s at least two years earlier than previously planned -- and that’s conservative, given that the previous program was behind schedule and over budget.“

    “At the same time, after decades of neglect, we will increase investment -- right away -- in other groundbreaking technologies that will allow astronauts to reach space sooner and more often, to travel farther and faster for less cost, and to live and work in space for longer periods of time more safely. That means tackling major scientific and technological challenges. How do we shield astronauts from radiation on longer missions? How do we harness resources on distant worlds? How do we supply spacecraft with energy needed for these far-reaching journeys? These are questions that we can answer and will answer. And these are the questions whose answers no doubt will reap untold benefits right here on Earth.“

    “So the point is what we’re looking for is not just to continue on the same path -- we want to leap into the future; we want major breakthroughs; a transformative agenda for NASA.”

    Applause--some polite, some more enthusiastic--echoed around the room. However, the most important audience was the senators, congressmen, and their staff members watching the speech or reading transcripts of it later. The White House’s initial 2010 plan--as arguably smart as it had been, had been presented in a way that made it a poison pill. Now, the President was offering important changes: a path forward to spare Orion and a new heavy lift vehicle program ,if not Ares V or Ares I. The President was demonstrating his willingness to compromise, to offer some of what Congress wanted to hear, but still insisting on some of the core elements of the plan--new technology development, increased use of commercial vehicles like the K-1 or the Falcon 9, and a delay to any immediate efforts to build a new heavy lift vehicle depending on the forty year old technologies of the past when so much might soon be changing about the future. Given the political winds in the capital, it would likely be fall before anything would come of a compromise, but it would now be up to Senators like Bill Nelson and Richard Shelby to decide how much of this vision might make it into the policy that crossed their desks. The President had proposed a vision, but now Congress would have their chance to shape how--if at all-that vision was authorized. Bill Nelson left the room that day pondering the vehicles he’d seen, the conversations he’d had, and the speech he’d heard. As a leader in the President’s party in the Senate, a spaceflight participant himself, and a leader in spaceflight policy, there had been wide speculation that if any compromise was to come out of Congress, its creation would have to be largely lead from his office.

    Notes: All the speech text is historical, from the actual speech Obama gave that day. The contrasts with Constellation (and with Artemis today) are remarkable and striking. With more proof of the benefits of private spaceflight in hand, and sitting out for display around Kennedy Space Center, will things turn out differently? We'll have to see...
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    April 15-18: Followup to Obama Speech
  • The President’s visit to KSC came in the midst of a war of whispers in Congressional offices and executive suites, escalating to a full-on shouting match in editorial pages, comment boxes, and internet forums. Only those busy preparing their hardware for flight were fully distracted from the fray, whichever system they were supporting. In the VAB, Atlantis was being prepared for her final flight, the STS-132 mission carrying the Rassvet mini-research module. Elsewhere on KSC grounds, that meant working through the ground interfaces as the maiden Falcon 9 came to the pad for the first time and new and experienced engineers went about the business of breaking in the newly reconstructed LC-41 for this launch and any which might come after. Elsewhere and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, that was RpK employees carefully overseeing the loading of the K-1 LAP into the Beluga transport aircraft to begin its return trip to Woomera, while the OV was moved to a temporary display site under an awning for weather protection near the KSC Visitor’s Center. With only one Beluga rented for the ferry trip home, one stage or the other had to go first, and NASA’s COTS office and RpK had decided to get every dollar of promotional value which could be wrung out of the vehicle’s shipment stateside. They had decided to save the OV and cargo pod’s shipment for second to enable more of the general public to have a chance to have their imaginations captured by the semi-sized stage which RpK, at least, was promoting as heir to the legacy of Shuttle--not the Shuttle that had flown ,but the Shuttle which had been dreamed of in the 1970s forty years before.

    Outside of Florida, others were hard at work on hardware, too. The SpaceShipTwo team were hard at work preparing Enterprise for her second captive carry flight, incorporating data from a month before as they prepared for a second flight in another month. In a workshop at a small airstrip north of Oklahoma City, the Rocketplane team were hard at work on their own first airframe, working hard to catch up to their rivals. Bit by bit, Gantt charts filled in and unexpected issues were knocked out as skin panels began to cover the base structural frames around the propellant tanks and engine mounts, while avionics and interfaces began to slowly light up one-by one as hardware testing ramped up. In the main engineering offices of the company less than twenty minutes away by the main Oklahoma airport, an excitement built as the plane came together day by day, an electrifying feeling felt around the bullpen more than the far-off work on K-1 in Woomera, Florida, or Michoud, where ATK had finally persuaded RpK to begin the process of constructing the second flight set of vehicles, LAP-2 and OV-2.

    The same feelings were distracting me from catching up on dozens of pages of thread progress tearing apart every new set of tea leaves of draft legislation, editorials, and congressional happenings. I spent the day the President was in Florida either behind the wheel or sleeping in my mom’s ragged old Honda minivan, towing a U-haul trailer full of college students and gear at remarkable speeds along the highways from Ohio to Witchita, Kansas. Secure in a shipping box as we barrelled along the highway was the product of much of my freshman year’s free time: Tank On Mars, the overbuilt and ragged-looking remote control aircraft which represented our school’s entry in the AIAA Design, Build, Fly competition. The long hours and high stress of getting the fuselage, wings, tails, and other systems built and tested had certainly weighed in my head as I made my own evaluations of the space news of the past months. TOM had made only a few test flights before the competition we were headed to, and none had been trouble free--on our maiden flight, the landing gear had liberated and continued rolling along the runway as the plane lifted its bulk into the dusk sky at the local model aircraft club. Only our pilot’s consummate skill and our team’s Grumman-like approach to overbuilding structures had brought it down in one piece for a belly landing on the grass beside the strip. A second flight day next weekend had hardly gone better, and now we were headed to compete against dozens of better funded, better equipped teams with a notepaper list of last-minute fixes and improvements to be made with the tools and materials we were bringing with us to the competition site. A math test, with its lovecraftian nightmares of eigenspace matrices turning vectors into integers, loomed large in my future next week...but I had almost no time to make any appropriate preparations, not even proper sleep.

    The weekend of competition itself was a whirlwind of assembly and maintenance work, practicing the drill of assembling our oversized airplane in under five minutes, and admiring the work of teams better funded and provisioned than our team. What time was left was spent either on the flight line, watching our competition's flights or sprawled exhausted within the marked out box provided for our team in the Cessna hangar facility temporarily given over to the competition's use. Our plane, with its ten foot wingspan assembled, nearly filled a diagonal of the space, with our team clustered into the remaining corners, so I spent a fair time when we weren’t working circulating around the flight line and hangar instead of working on cramming my brain for an eigentest I was pretty sure was I going to eigenfail. In the process, I spotted one of the orange-shirted students from one of the local schools considered likely favorites to win, Oklahoma State University, bearing a familiar logo on their hat. The three letters I saw--RpK--were as close to a combined brand as Rocketplane Kistler had, which I was more familiar with emblazoned on the side of the K-1 or on the newer artwork circulating of their maiden Rocketplane XP aircraft.

    A brief flightline-adjacent stalking session finally gave me the opportunity to attempt to “happen’ to saddle up and try to smoothly open conversation with an observation on the plane currently flying. The older student gave me a look, but replied, and I managed to only half-obviously transition the conversation to the Rocketplane hat and discover that, indeed, they had spent a semester or two interning at RpK’s engineering headquarters in Oklahoma City. My interest was more obvious than I attempted to hide, but they were some combination of amused by the interest or enjoying lording their “insider” knowledge over someone on the “outside,” and they let slip a few details. I had already known the progress on the XP, which I’d been following off and on, and more details about its construction were interesting, though not thrilling--though it was exciting to think that this student, only a few years older than me, had designed brackets and pipe fittings for secondary systems which were even now being installed on the spaceplane.

    However, when I mentioned I was perhaps more interested in the orbital K-1, their interest began to wane even as mine increased. As it turned out, they’d also learned very little about it, as much of the engineering was either complete or run out of subcontractor offices, and while they offered their experience of watching the missions fly from the OKC control room, about all they could offer that was new was their reply to my comment about what a pity it was that the K-1 was so small. In some sense, I said, it was the Shuttle we’d always been promised at half or one-third scale. This brought an enigmatic smile. “That might change,” they said. It was a moment that stuck with me through two crash landings at competition that ended our hopes of finishing above the tenth percentile of teams, the drive back to campus, and the crash and burn on my exam which was the inevitable result of too much stress and too little study or sleep. Who cared, really? I passed, at least, the plane had flown if not landed, and a new age of spaceflight might be working its embryonic way to flight as I followed it into the quickly-approaching summer.
    May 28, 2010: A slow month and preparations for an exciting June
  • For some, the President's speech at KSC in April had brought some hope that the 2011 NASA budget debates might break through the logjam of mixed congressional and industry messaging and find a way to common ground in time to have language incorporated into something more than a continuing resolution. However, those hopes were dashed over the next month and a half, as congressional activity slowed in the wake of the ACA's passage and debates continued, many congressional representatives taking the President's revised priorities with a "thanks, I hate it" attitude. Work proceeded in May on readying Falcon 9 for its maiden launch, digesting the data from the static fire in March as work finished to prepare for flight termination systems certification with the range. I’d watched the static fire back several months ago, and the wait had now become almost interminable. Outside the US, the K-1 returned to its home at Woomera, and technicians began the work of preparing the OV and LAP for their second flight to the International Space Station, the final COTS demo, this time with the unpressurized cargo module aboard. In Michoud, work finally began on assembling the stockpiled long-lead items for LAP-2 and OV-2 as both ships began final assembly. With both K-1 and Falcon 9 headed for flights in June, the sense of anticipation built as I settled back in at home for the summer, eagerly digesting the latest debates on AmericanRocketNews and other sites in place of the stress of the final weeks of classes. It seemed like May brought much happening, but little to see externally.

    However, at the same time, work continued on the so-called “zombie programs”--programs like Ares I and Ares V whose cancellation had been recommended by Augustine and requested by NASA and the President, but whose funding now continued along with the continuing resolution. While the programs began to lose people in ones and twos to transfers or departures to pastures under lower threat, others stayed, watching anxiously to see if their work would survive, or if the contracts they were working under would be revamped into another program, like the proposed alternate lower-cost and more direct Shuttle-derived HLVs which had been floated in some parts as a “compromise” between the President’s desire to see Ares V and Ares I ended and the money better spent on development of new technologies and a future improved HLV and the entrenched interests of space state congresspersons and senators in preventing job losses not just in ones and twos by in hundreds and thousands.

    The most visible events for those not following day by day the internal struggles was the ongoing success of the Space Shuttle program as it closed out its flight schedule. For once, the sometimes-troubled launcher proceeded smoothly, lifting off to the Space Station with the Rassvet Russian research module on its first launch attempt. The legacy of Atlantis ran strong through what was then planned as her final mission as the orbiter proved its reusable heritage: the left-side aft dome SRB segment flown on the mission had made its own maiden flight on Atlantis debut STS-51J mission in 1985, and of the 12 booster components along for the ride (4 motor segments, a forward module, and a nozzle and aft equipment section on each booster) hardware was represented which had flown with Atlantis on 18 of her 32 missions. It was a demonstration of the reusability of the Shuttle system, if not its cost-effective reuse, but the very pick-and-mix nature of the hardware used on each of those 32 missions which mean that such a value could be achieved almost more by random chance than with any kind of planning pointed at the segmentation and heavy overhaul required by Shuttle’s SRBs. It would remain to be seen if the reusability proposed by the new competition--the K-1’s propulsive RTLS and parachute landings and the Falcon 9’s parachutes and ocean splashdowns--could truly exceed what had come before. As for Shuttle itself, it was its own kind of zombie program. Every successful mission was another milestone on a short path to the history books.

    The debates surrounding the implications of the zombie Ares rockets and the end of the Shuttle were intense--some saw a chance that a program like that pushed for by DIRECT might yet fly, as a cheap and fast replacement program to preserve the Shuttle workforce without the expenses of new tooling, the 5-segment solid rocket boosters, and extensive money wasted on delays. However, others pushed alternative plans, arguing that the low-cost development of Falcon and the commercially-developed fully reusable K-1 indicated that the time for Shuttle hardware had passed--if anything new was to be built, better to ensure it was the best it could be, the latest and greatest. The former I had informally dubbed “HLV now” in my head, while the second was “HLV Soon”--though the expense and delays involved lead many of the former group to argue the latter might simply result in “HLV Never”. The two factions warred throughout the forums and web, arguing philosophy, budgets, and the interpretations of Congressional tea leaves. What did it mean that Nelson’s compromise bill had called for a 70 to 150-ton heavy lifter based on Ares I and Ares V contracting, one which might match DIRECT values if the units were read as US conventional short tons but might exceed what DIRECT could promise if read as long tons or metric tons? How did that compare to a similar request in the House bill, but which had named no performance goals and also stated a goal for commonality with contracting for any commercial crew vehicle development? What did it mean that Nelson had been much less aggressive in pushing his original bill text in the past several weeks? Speculation on these matters and others ran rampant.

    As Atlantis gilded her way back to a runway in Flroida, tensions which had simmered over the relatively slow times of April and May began to come to a boil. By a quirk of range and space station scheduling, both of the commercial poster children were slotted to fly in June within a week of each other. The result, as both companies arranged their public relations schedules around these launches, was a whirlwind of events as two companies aimed to make their claim as the leader in commercial spaceflight, producing a frothing boil of speculatory threads. The thread which I tended to check most often was one I had created myself, based on my experience at competition talking to the former RpK intern. It was my first time posting a thread of my own on the forum, and I was nervous I might get ripped to shreds for daring to ask. Fortunately that had mostly failed to happen...

    ”e of pi (05/26/10 02:21:19 PM)” said:
    The relative size and capability of the Falcon 9 and the RpK K-1 have drawn a lot of discussion before. There's been a lot of talk about the Falcon 9 Heavy as a way to push Falcon 9 payload above 10 tons and into the Atlas/Ariane class to geostationary, and I've seen speculation here on ARN about various plans for using Falcon 1 boosters for some kind of Falcon 9 Medium or 5 or more first stages as some kind of Falcon 9 Superheavy hat could push more than 40 tons. Has anyone else heard anything about RpK trying to put together some kind of..."K-1 Heavy" or any other ways to boost K-1 performance above their current 2-4 metric tons? How likely is this?

    ”Tim (05/26/10 05:04:22 PM)” said:
    Not happening. K-1's too small for its payload already, and rockets aren't LEGO elements, particularly when they're only just now building a second one.
    ”RocketNerd1701 (05/26/10 08:37:20 PM)“ said:
    Pardon, but how can a rocket be "too small for its payload"? Isn't the problem with K-1 serving any kind of payload beyond LEO that its payload launch capability is too small. It seems like that's a problem for more boosters or more thrust or something. That's the way Atlas and Delta and Falcon all plan to solve it…
    ”Tim (05/26/10 09:02:54 PM)” said:
    Even if it threw 200 tons, the K-1 payload bay is too small. It works for station where cargo is dense and a few tons matter, but for anything else, anything heavier than what they can throw wouldn't fit in the payload volume anyway.
    ”e of pi (05/26/10 11:17:53 PM)” said:
    Could they install some kind of fairing, or enlarge the bay? Maybe just scale up the whole upper stage? It seems like there's not a lot of money in the kinds of small payloads K-1 was designed to launch into LEO--I mean, they won Orbcomm, but that's only a few launches. It seems that, like Falcon, K-1 needs to serve GEO to make enough money to do more than just fly to station and back a few times a year.
    ”Downton (05/27/10 09:26:10 AM)” said:
    Payload fairings are expensive, and heavy. If they had to carry one to orbit, partiularly one large enough to take GEO sats that currently wouldn't fit into any of the payload modules for the OV, it'd take away almost the entire payload and mean they'd really need to scale up...basically everything on the launch vehicle. That's a whole new rocket. If they used a disposable fairing like other rockets, it'd be a major new recurring cost for such launches--a typical fairing costs somewhere in the range of $3-6 million. Adding one would mean something like a 15-30% increase in the cost of the K-1, and they'd still have to solve the performance problems.

    Besides, the fairing would need to be mounted such that the second stage could balance a payload on its nose like a seal and yet re-enter with a continuous forward heat shield after the fairing was dropped off and the payload deployed. Thus, even after the expensive development of adding strap-on side cores or additional engines or a depot-and-tug system or whatever you did to multi-billion project you did to improve the performance, you might not actually make the K-1 more cost effective. I'd think it'd be better to focus on their core missions of ISS support and small satellites using the K-1. Any new RpK orbital vehicle aiming for higher payload probably needs a clean sheet design, incorporating the lessons they've learned in getting K-1 flying on a much larger scale.
    ”UniversalSteve (05/27/10 12:32:15 PM)” said:
    Seems like a larger K-1 would be the perfect answer--a big reusable Shuttle-capable vehicle, with a bay the size of Shuttle for ISS missions and beyond! Makes sense to me--I hope Congress or someone gives them the money!
    banderchuk (05/27/10 02:21:12 PM) said:
    I'd definitely think they're thinking about the problem, but I can't say if they've gotten anywhere on implementing solutions or what kind of solutions they'd develop if they could. A lot would depend on whether certain minority shareholders are all right with them sinking money into it--that's dominated a lot of their development allocations recently, I think.
    ”excalibur99 (05/27/10 03:01:15 PM)” said:
    No chance they get development money for anything like this--it cost them a billion and a half to get this far. Who'd give them another few billion for that, just on the off chance they can deliver it in less than a decade this time? It's like the proposals to delay building a heavy--we either need one now, or we need to do without one. Anything else is fantasy. They and SpaceX need to stop trying to make waves and focus on delivering the results they've been promising before people think they're just making trouble.
    ”Downton (05/27/10 04:20:57)” said:
    You recall RpK have flown to station twice now, and that both they and SpaceX have launches coming in a few weeks, right excalibur? Skepticism on their actual ability to fly cost-effectively and develop hardware on their own without the usual suspects involved is one thing, but they are flying and selling more flights. I know things are tense around Michoud these days, but hat smacks of concern trolling.
    ”ArnieH (05/27/10 05:14:21 PM)” said:
    All right everyone, simmer down and be excellent to each other before this has to get cut and moved to the natter zone. I think we can all agree we're interested to see K-1 and Falcon fly, and what comes next for everyone--old space included.
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    RpK Logo, circa 2006
  • Something I came across while digging through research documents today:


    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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    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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    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.

    Iridium Satellite Deal OTL: next-constellation/
    Iridium Launch Contract OTL:
    COTS Costs:
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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.

    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...
    July 26, 2010: AIAA Propulsion Conference RpK and SpaceX presentations
  • It was rare that technical conferences made headlines. Going into it, the expectations for the 2010 AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference & Exhibit were similar. Attendees represented industry, academia, and students. The expectations was for networking and the occasional minor leaks over drinks mixed in with paper sessions, technical discussions, and keynote presentations. The typical papers were academic or industry presentations with titles along the lines of “On the validation of porous nickel as substrate material for electrospray ion propulsion” dealing with minor, incremental improvements which together added up to millions of dollars in research in development for the next generation of jet and rocket engines. This year would see some presentations hold to that mold more than others. The two COTS competitors had been assigned to sequential slots in the same room, talking about applications of rocket propulsion testing and research in the field of commercial spaceflight.

    As was expected, Rocketplane Kistler’s propulsion team gave a presentation which broke little from the typical mold. The team’s focus lay in the field of reusable engine design, comparing and contrasting the many engines the company was developing flight experience with on the K-1, starting from their aging-but-refit AJ-26 first and second stage orbital engines to the LOX/alcohol orbital maneuvering engines down to the cold gas thrusters used for attitude control of the stages during ascent, return, and for the K-1 OV’s maneuvers in space for payload deployment or berthing to the International Space Station. The AJ-26 was, as expected, the most complex of the three types and involved the most complex inspections and maintenance between missions. However, in spite of the challenges of a half-century-old staged combustion engine overhauled with American control systems, RpK’s team put a brave face on their turnaround operations, talking up their collaborations with Aerojet and what they were learning from other reusable high-power engines like the SSME. They didn’t comment on if the turnaround of the AJ-26s made the 9-day flight schedule they had once advertised impossible, but they did note that the engines weren’t the current limit on their 60-day reflights demonstrated to date and that they were continuing to expect the engines on LAP-1 and OV-1 to last in service for the dozen or so flights necessary to allow LAP-2 and OV-2 to finish integration and enter service within the next 18 months. They noted that this should ensure that Aerojet’s supply of 55 AJ-26 engines should last more than 165 missions--more than sufficient, they noted with a smile, for the contracted CRS flights plus any number of commercial contracts. Nevertheless, RpK presented their consideration of options for enhancing the K-1’s operational life and performance with a US-built licensed copy of the AJ-26 with enhanced capabilities. With Aerojet publically known to be gearing up to try and bid for the large hydrocarbon engine contract everyone expected if the Senate budget for NASA passed, this was widely seen as aligning RpK’s development with the priorities of their subcontractors as a way of once more trading design authority for lobbying support from established space players, as RpK already had with ATK’s well-timed contract to begin assembling LAP-2 and OV-2 just as Bill Nelson’s office had been gearing up to draft their final bill.

    The presentation concluded with a review of the status of the AR-36 engine intended for use on the Rocketplane XP “Pioneer.” Though a kerosene/LOX engine like the AJ-26, the AR-36 had more in common with the K-1’s OMS engines: a simple pump powered by decomposition of hydrogen peroxide fed a low-pressure rocket engine with a vacuum-optimized nozzle, suited for in-flight ignition aboard the suborbital spaceplane. Testing of the engine had been in progress for more than a year, and the team announced that not only were they firing the engine at full power, but that hundreds of firings were well into a program of hours of total runtime, characterizing the engine’s startup, shutdown, and operations across the envelope. The lessons they had learned in preparing and flying the K-1, they said, were now being applied to the testing and design of the AR-36, culminating in their big announcement: multiple full-duration firings of the AR-36 with less than four hours of maintenance between flights, mostly consisting of topping off the tanks at the test stand. It was an achievement matching the best demonstrations by XCOR and Masten and radically exceeding the turnaround time possible from any single hybrid motor SpaceShipTwo was using. If rapid and reusable suborbital tourism was ever to happen, RpK’s propulsion team and their partners at Polaris and Aerojet now had a major leg up. The engine was still not yet fully qualified for flight, the RpK team stressed, but it was only due to their desire to have the engine fully understood on the test stand before they mounted it to the plane. By the time the Pioneer had completed its jet-powered tests, the rocket would be ready--and that time would surely be before the next summer’s conference.

    It was an informative and exciting presentation, with much to look forward to...and the SpaceX presentation by Tom Markusic immediately afterwards almost completely blew it out of the minds of the attendees. The tone of the presentations was different almost from the first slide, when Markusic flashed up a busy slide full of equations, graphs of the Bessel functions grabbed from Wikipedia paired with the eye-crossing equations which governed them. Bessel functions were complex, in-depth...and irrelevant to the presentation as a whole. Indeed, the first slide was nothing but a joke about the complexity and depth of the typical presentation. Instead, much of the rest of Markusic’s presentation would consist of filling in a four-block diagram of engine programs one at a time, explaining their significance for SpaceX. While RpK had focused their presentation on the near term, development programs underway and vehicles already flying, SpceX presented almost no programs expected to be achieved within the next five years. Their existing Merlin 1C engines were hardly mentioned, and then only in the context of Merlin 2, a massive F-1 sized low-pressure gas generator engine derived from their work on Merlin, and the lowest-hanging fruit of the development options for future launch vehicle propulsion SpaceX presented as something they were considering.

    Compared to a wish list including nuclear thermal propulsion, solar and nuclear electric tugs, and methane engines with applications for Mars ascent and descent propulsion, the Merlin 2 was almost mundane...perhaps deliberately considering the incendiary language included on the slide. In simple bullets, SpaceX’s propulsion team claimed that the could “develop and flight qualify the Merlin 2 engine in ~3 years at a cost of ~$1B”. Apparently, the audience noted, Aerojet and Rocketdyne weren’t the only ones considering the potential revenue from the hydrocarbon engine program and aiming to bring home the contract. However, Markusic continued, couching the Merlin 2 not in its value to the world at large, but to SpaceX’s future plans. His next slide was a lineup of familiar and unfamiliar rockets. It started with the Saturn V, the existing 11-metric-ton Falcon 9, and the long-expected Falcon 9 Heavy with its capability of just over 30 metric tons to LEO. However, the slide then went on to lay out how the Merlin 2 could enhance the family, with a single Merlin 2 replacing nine Merlin 1s. The revised Falcon 9 would see its performance improve by as much as a ton, while the Falcon 9 Heavy would be pushed to nearly 35 metric tons--nearly double the performance of the USAF’s mainstay Delta IV Heavy. However, these were only intermediate steps on the way to two new-diameter rockets. Falcon X was the first, whose 6-meter diameter lower stage (nearly as large as the Saturn IB or the K-1’s swollen LAP) could house 3 Merlin 2 engines, producing a single rocket which matched the Falcon 9 Heavy in performance. Clustered together, it produced Falcon X Heavy, which would launch 125 metric tons, nearly the same as the older Saturn V. However, the place of pride on the far right of the chart was held by Falcon XX: a 10 meter rocket powered by 6 Merlin 2s, larger than the Saturn V whose specifications it met or exceeded down the line, from sea level thrust to its startling 140 metric tons to LEO. If these were the dreams Elon Musk wanted his propulsion dream to support--and felt free for them to reveal publicly--no one could accuse him of thinking small. Even if it took a decade or more for the massive rockets to become reality, independent of whether NASA ended up with an HLV or not, and whether such a rocket were reusable or Shuttle-derived, these were no small dreams.

    The detailed discussions of their studies of various engine testing methods, the benefits and detriments of various engine propulsion cycles, and concepts for a small hydrogen/oxygen upper-stage engine called “Raptor” washed over some in the audience, those either blown away by the vision of the lineup of massive rockets or who could barely believe the arrogance such a presentation showed. For the latter, the conclusion of the presentation held its own evidence of insanity, as it closed with a fake quote supposedly from the Dead Sea Scrolls in support of kerosene/oxygen propulsion and opposition to solid-rockets: “Black water shall elevate thy children to the heavens. Purify it. But thou shalt not combine it in a ratio greater than one kikkar to twenty shekkels, nor shalt thou burn rocks. Thus saith the lord.” It was a wild end to a wild presentation, and helped ensure which of the two presentations would be the topic of innumerable cocktail party discussions and dominate the internet in the coming days and weeks. However, in a sense both rivals had achieved their objectives. RpK had avoided stirring the pot as Congress considered a budget which could make RpK’s reusable experience the future of spaceflight, instead focusing on playing up the experience they were getting precisely by casting it as nothing new, simply presenting their successes with reusable rocket engines and their current and imminent achievements. SpaceX, trailing in launches and cost to access the space station, had helped focus attention on their future instead of the present.