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The Dream Chaser will begin shuttling astronauts to the ISS as early as 2017.

Produced by Luke Rague/Footage from SpaceX and NASA

Space Exploration Technologies unveiled its human space flight capsule, the Dragon V2. 

All systems are go: NASA counts down on next gen space vehicles

by Luke Rague
Jun 5, 2014


Luke Rague/Medill

NASA has developed a number of flight systems to launch humans into Earth’s orbits since the early 1960s. After the disintegration of the Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003, NASA began sending astronauts on Russian Soyuz missions while they evaluated the Space Shuttle program. Even after resuming Space Shuttle missions, NASA continued sending astronauts on Soyuz missions to make up for having fewer operational Shuttles. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, the Soyuz became the only way for astronauts to reach the ISS. Click to enlarge.


Luke Rague/Medill

NASA was founded with a mission to send humans into space as fast as possible, and the division of funding in early budgets reflects this, with up 74% of all NASA funding going directly into researching and developing human space travel systems. However, with the exception of the height of the Space Shuttle’s use, funding for human space travel has been falling as space became explored and public interest shifted to terrestrial problems. Today the majority of NASA’s funding goes towards weather satellites, non-human solar system exploration, studying climate change, and other projects. Click to enlarge. 


Luke Rague/Medill

Fueled by the Cold War rivalry, NASA’s early budgets soared in both its total amount and its relationship with the total Federal Budget. However, NASA’s funding began to drop in 1970 after Apollo 11 successfully landed the first humans onto the Moon, completing the agency’s mission in the eyes of many policy makers. Since the early 1970s, NASA’s budget has stayed at a stable level, but has dropped in its relationship to the total Federal Budget. However, it experienced a slight jump in funding in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the Space Shuttles brought national attention back to the program. Click to enlarge. 

Luke Rague/Medill     

Three human space flight systems are currently being funded by NASA's Commercial Crew Program, including SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada. Other systems are collaborating with the program, but not receiving funding, including Blue Origin.     

The twenty-first century space race and America’s future in human space transportation just launched into commercial hands. Three private aerospace companies passed NASA certification tests for their proposed space transportation systems.


NASA’s endorsement gives all three companies access to further space funding, with the goal of flying astronauts to the International Space Station by privately designed and developed space vehicles by 2017 at the earliest.

Space capsules engineered by Sierra Nevada Corporation Space Systems, The Boeing Company, and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) were evaluated by NASA starting in January. Proposed systems had to meet the safety, reliability, and cost-effectiveness standards outlined in agreements with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Throughout the program NASA has worked with eight private companies, in both funded and unfunded contracts, to develop full flight systems, innovative emergency systems, and the rockets needed to send crewed capsules into space.

Each company is taking unique approaches to the issue of space flight so the evaluations are necessary to ensure the vehicles are compatible with existing docking technology, NASA facilities and each other, said Stephanie Martin NASA representative of the Commercial Crew Program.

Kathy Lueders, the manager of the Commercial Crew Program, said that the space industry can only benefit from the diversity in each company’s approach. “There’s more than one correct way to build a spacecraft, and [the Commercial Crew Program] has been an invaluable learning process for our industry partners and the agency," said Lueders.

SpaceX added to the excitement by unveiling its very own method of reaching Earth’s orbit and beyond last Thursday.

CEO Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla Motors, gave the public its first glimpse at SpaceX’s manned space flight module, the Dragon V2, at its Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters.

The Dragon V2, developed out of the company’s cargo capsule and designed to transport up to seven astronauts, will employ a number of advancements on existing technologies to allow for rapid reuse and lower program costs. The most impressive of these, Musk said, is its landing method.

“We wanted to take a big step in technology – a step change in space craft technology – and an important characteristic of that is the ability to land anywhere on land propulsive. So that’s one of the things Dragon V2 will be able to do, you will be able to land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter,” Musk said during the webcasted unveiling.

The Boeing Company, however, is sticking with a tried and true landing method for its CST-100, and has an eye on distant prizes, such as returning to the moon and sending astronauts to Mars.

Drawing on the lessons and successes of programs dating back to NASA’s Mercury program in the 1960s, which brought the first Americans into Earth orbit, Boeing’s CST-100 capsule looks like a beefed up Apollo crew capsule and is designed to land on either land or sea with the aid of the traditional parachutes and airbags, while retaining a structural integrity necessary for reuse.

The CST-100 will initially be used for docking with the International Space Station and includes enough storage space for missions as long as six months.

Drawing on another highly successful NASA program, Sierra Nevada Corporation is developing the Dream Chaser, which looks like a mini version of the Space Shuttle program that was retired in 2011.

Having recently completed wind tunnel testing, Sierra Nevada’s head of Space Systems Mark Sirangelo says the seven person space craft is well on its way towards space flight. “We are on schedule to launch our first orbital flight in November of 2016, which will mark the beginning of the restoration of U.S. crew capability to low-Earth orbit,” said Sirangelo.

Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon V2 will be able to be reused up to 10 times before the impact of landing begins to create cracks in the heat shields and other structural damage. Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser will be reused indefinitely, like the Space Shuttle, due to the low-impact landing method.

The evaluations completed by NASA Friday come after two months of controversy and degrading relations between NASA and Russia’s Roscosmos, the space agency that currently controls the only system capable of transporting astronauts to the ISS.

With tensions mounting in Ukraine, the long-standing cooperation between the U.S. and Russia’s space agencies took a blow when an internal NASA memo, leaked by The Verge, announced the end of all communication and collaborations between the agencies that did not involve the ISS. Meant as a form of embargo on Russia in retaliation for the crisis in Ukraine, the move started a rapid breakdown of over twenty years of international collaboration and apolitical pursuit of science.

In mid-May, Roscosmos head, deputy Prime Minister Dmity Rogozin, announced that Russia would stop participating in the ISS in 2020, favoring a new joint-operation space station with China’s space agency. Two weeks later, NASA announced it had bought what are likely the last seats on Russia’s Soyuz capsule that will be used by NASA astronauts to get to the ISS, scheduled for late 2017.

Congress has made moves to increase the funding for the Commercial Crew Program, which Martin said will allow NASA to accept one or more contracts in the next round of awards. Yet, NASA still expects to send the first of the privately developed systems in 2017 at the earliest, leaving little room for delay if the U.S. hopes to keep the ISS continually manned through 2024, as they hope.

However, the recent evaluations, part of the Certification Products Contract, “marks critical progress in the development of next-generation American space transportation systems,” said Martin. With three programs that have met all of the major deadlines for contracts and funding throughout the process since 2011, NASA can begin accepting bids for more funding and testing contracts in late 2014 from companies with systems nearing the final testing process of development.

The Commercial Crew Program marks a shift in the way NASA acquires the technology it needs to send astronauts into space. Over the years since its founding in 1968, NASA generally designed its own equipment for a single flight system and contracted out its construction to the lowest bidder.

The Commercial Crew Program forces NASA to take a backseat in the design process beyond the basic requirements, allowing creativity to flow in a handful of private companies and a selection of systems for NASA to choose from as the designs mature.

After the human space flight systems pass full scale testing, starting as early as 2016, NASA will purchase at least one of the completed systems, as well as contract the private companies to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, replacing NASA’s reliance on Russia’s Soyuz program.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program started in 2010 when it received funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Through NASA, this money was awarded to private companies for developing human space flight systems to replace the aging Space Shuttle system, which was 20 years old at the time.

Over the past four years, NASA has awarded funding to six private companies that are developing technology necessary for human space flight, including Sierra Nevada, Boeing and SpaceX, as well as Blue Origin, the United Launch Alliance and Paragon Space Development Company.

Although the latter three companies did not receive total funding for their own human space flight systems, they were contracted to complete projects that would benefit the industry as a whole. Blue Origin built an innovated abort system for emergency situations during launch, the United Launch Alliance built an emergency detection system to trigger the abort system, and Paragon built a life support system.

Throughout the stages of the program, over $1.5 billion have been awarded to these companies for research and development. Martin said that the program has also worked closely with Alliant Techsystems and Excalibur Almaz to ensure technology compatibility. Neither company has received funding, but the existing relationship allows for all parties to benefit from sharing technology and concepts.