Under Construction: Next Era of U.S. Manned Spaceflight

December 03, 2015
By: Doug Mohney

NASA Kennedy Space Center, Florida: the last manned flight from this location occurred in 2011.  Today, diverse projects and new hardware by commercial companies and NASA are paving the way for the next era of manned spaceflight from U.S. soil.  “Something old, something new” is a big theme around Kennedy, as facilities built during the space race and Shuttle area are revamped and repurposed to support new spaceflight activities.

Earlier this week, Boeing (News - Alert) conducted a brief media tour of its spacecraft factory, a stone’s throw away from NASA’s legendary Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).  Boeing has a long term lease for the former Orbital Processing Facility (OPF) 3 building and is now in the process of systemically gutting and refurbishing the facility in order to build and maintain its CTS (News - Alert)-100 Starliner commercial spacecraft. Half the building is finished, with the “high bay” side currently under renovation.

Boeing is in the process of putting together a structural test article, the first of four CTS-100 vehicles planned to be built, with the upper and lower halves available for viewing.   Once completed, the structural test article will be moved to California for engineering test verification with a flight test vehicle and two crew vehicles next on the list.  The flight test vehicle will be used for a pad abort test and at some point be converted into a full-fledged flight vehicle. 

Each CTS-100 Starliner is capable of transporting up to seven astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International space station. Each crew module is designed to be refurbrished and flown again up to 10 times, so Boeing should be capable to supporting up to 30 flights with the hardware it is building.  Boeing is one of two companies selected by NASA to fly crew to the International Space Station (ISS) and expects to start orbital test flights in 2017, flying to orbit on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V vehicle from a Cape Canaveral pad next door to KSC.

A couple miles away, SpaceX (News - Alert) is erecting a complex of its own at pad 39A. SpaceX fought with Blue Origin for a 20 year lease on the pad, last used for the Space Shuttle program.  The company will use the pad for launching its NASA commercial crew missions to ISS and its Falcon Heavy rocket.  Falcon Heavy will be the largest launch vehicle built since the Saturn V, capable of putting 53,000 kilograms into low earth orbit.  Each Falcon Heavy will be assembled horizontally, then brought to the pad via rail tracks and moved vertically for launch. 

Image via Pixabay

SpaceX has erected two large buildings around pad 39A to support Falcon Heavy and crew operations and is conducting modifications to the pad itself to handle moving Falcon Heavy from its horizontal assembly building. In the near future, it will be adding a crew-escape system to the tower at 39A, to assist astronauts in leaving a Dragon capsule in case of an emergency prior to launch.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) will use pad 39B along with the VAB and the crawler-transporter that first went into service during the Apollo program and was in operation through the end of the Shuttle program.  Pad 39B has been stripped to its essentials and will be available for commercial vehicles when not in use for SLS missions.  NASA currently has two SLS launches penciled in, an unmanned test flight in 2018 and a manned flight to lunar orbit in 2021.

Blue Origin won’t be using 39B for its new rockets, but has a lease on the LC-36 pad at Cape Canaveral.  In September, Blue Origin announced the pad lease and started construction of a $200 million factory in Exploration Park, located just outside the gates of Kennedy.  Raw materials will go into the factory with two stage rockets rolling out to LC-36 for launch.   Like SpaceX, Blue Origin plans to fly back its first stage to a touchdown on dry land for reuse.  CEO Jeff Bezos estimates the company should have first flight of its big rocket from Florida – not to be confused with the suborbital program out of Texas – by 2020.

The key takeaway here is the U.S. spaceflight industry is far from dead, despite the retirement of the Shuttle program. If anything, it is more diverse and vibrant, with multiple commercial companies building new rockets to put satellites into orbit and soon deliver crew to the space station. If there’s a question mark in the mix, it is the expense and slow pace of SLS, with only two flights scheduled in the next six years at an estimated cost of $1 billion or more per flight.




Edited by Kyle Piscioniere