Once the last of NASA's space shuttle fleet shuffle off to retirement in a few months, the space agency will be totally dependent on the Russian Soyuz to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. At a cost of around US$63 million per seat, or more than $753 million a year, NASA is turning to the commercial companies to provide a more economical option. As part of the second round of funding for the agency's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) initiative that aims to stimulate development of privately operated crew vehicles to low Earth orbit, it will dole out grants totaling $269.3 million to four private companies. One of the recipients is SpaceX, which has been awarded $75 million to develop a launch escape system for its Dragon spacecraft.
Although the Dragon spacecraft was designed from the outset to carry seven astronauts into space and, with the successful flight on December 8th, 2010, the company has already proven the performance of many of the Dragon and Falcon 9 rocket components, a launch escape system that quickly separates the crew module from the rest of the rocket in the case of an emergency, is one of the technologies that needs to be realized before the craft can actually transport humans into low Earth orbit.
Unlike traditional solid rocket tractor escape towers that, due to their extreme weight, need to be jettisoned within minutes of liftoff, SpaceX's integrated escape system design builds the escape engines into the side walls of the Dragon spacecraft. Additionally, since the escape system is integrated into the spacecraft, it can be reused, to help reduce costs.
The company says that not only does such a design eliminate the danger of releasing a heavy rocket tower after launch, it also provides the crew with an emergency escape capability throughout the entire flight. This is an obvious advantage over the Space Shuttle, which has no escape system, and the Apollo moon program that allowed escape only during the first few minutes of flight.
The award involves funds being paid as SpaceX meets a series of specific hardware milestones that will see the company modify the Dragon to accommodate crew. These include:
- the static fire testing of the launch escape system engines
The other companies to be awarded funding are Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), Blue Origin, and Boeing. SNC's $80 million award will allow the company to further develop its Dream Chaser vertical-takeoff, horizontal landing (VTHL) lifting body spaceplane, while Boeing has been awarded more than $92 million, largely for its CST-100 capsule. Although Blue Origin failed to meet all its milestones for the first funding round, the company has been awarded $22 million award for its pusher escape system.
The agreements between NASA and the four successful companies will run until May 2012.