Sen. Rubio asks: What’s next for NASA? SpaceX marks the spot

On July 7, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio spoke on the future of America’s space program.

“When this final shuttle mission draws to a close, many Americans will be startled by the realization that we don’t have an answer to the question: What’s next for NASA?” he said. “We know that our commercial space partners are working to fill some of the gaps in our human space flight capabilities, and that is a promising development that we should encourage. But we need NASA to lead.”

I follow one of those commercial space partners, Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, on Facebook. Less than three weeks after the senator asked his probing question, SpaceX posted a status update that suggested the gap is closing more rapidly than Rubio or I were aware.

To put human spaceflight into historical perspective, bear in mind that the Apollo missions to the moon were completed 40 years ago, and the shuttle fleet just retired in July, after 30 years of service. By contrast, the first flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle happened just last year, in June.

But this past April, NASA awarded SpaceX $75 million to develop the escape system essential to enable the company’s Dragon spacecraft to carry astronaut crews. And crucially, NASA and SpaceX have technically agreed to examine how to combine two Commercial Orbital Transportation Service missions into one. It’s a move I find reminiscent of the “all-up” test of Apollo 4, and it’s proof positive of the maturing in the systems and designs.

Protocols for C3-PO
Commercial Orbital Transportation Services are public-private partnerships to help develop and demonstrate the vehicles, systems and operations for commercial space transportation. COTS missions are managed by NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, known as C3-PO, which has $500 million in contracts with U.S. companies to reach and resupply the International Space Station and other future exploration needs to and from low-Earth orbit.

Therefore, a tweet about one fewer Falcon rocket launch by SpaceX in November means to me that NASA is looking to save time and money. William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, is quoted as saying he wants the cargo delivered to the International Space Station as quickly as possible. Although formal approval is still pending, SpaceX is taking all the necessary steps to merge the COTS 2 and COTS 3 missions. This would reduce the need for a demonstration of the Dragon spaceship, a dry run that would have it prove it can safely approach to within 10 kilometers of the International Space Station, but not berth. Instead of conducting such a flyby on its next flight, nine days after liftoff, the Dragon could be allowed to dock directly at the space station in December.

Let’s do the math: SpaceX self-reports an average price of $54 million for a Falcon 9 flight, and $133 million (including inflation) for a full-scale NASA Dragon cargo mission to the space station. So somewhere between $54 million and $133 million is being saved by merging the COTS missions into one. And let us presume that the money is turned around and redirected into modifying the Dragon for manned spaceflight, matching the $75 million NASA approved in April for developing the Dragon’s escape systems. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk predicts,  “With NASA’s support, SpaceX will be ready to fly its first manned mission in 2014.”

By coincidence, December is also when Orbital Science Corp., another of NASA’s C3PO partners, should have its first Taurus II launch. In the last three months, virtually all the hardware for two Taurus II test flight vehicles has been delivered to Virginia. When assembly and testing is complete, and the launch pad is constructed and certified, COTS demonstrations and commercial resupply missions on a Cygnus cargo-carrying spacecraft by Orbital could begin in 2012.

What’s next for NASA? Rubio is right: This is a promising development we should encourage. By New Year’s, we still may not have an answer, but NASA may have a lead.

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