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“Depending on when we launch they’re going to be up there for probably two to three months.”

NASA Administrator Bridenstine
SpaceX and NASA
Elon Musk speaks with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, along with astronauts Victor Glover, Doug Hurley, Bob Behnken and Mike Hopkins, in front of the company’s Crew Dragon capsule. Credit NASA

The next launch to the Space Station is planned for April 9th and is only a few days away. Preparations for the launch have been complicated with illness and coronavirus complications. AS OF NOW, the launch is still on track to rocket American astronaut Chris Cassidy and his two Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. Originally, Ivanishin and Vagner were backup for expedition 63. Due to a temporary health condition, Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner were moved forward onto the prime crew. Because of delays in the US Commercial Crew Program, the crew on the ISS may be lower that normal.

Boeing and SpaceX delays put ISS operations at Risk

Since delays to the US Commercial Crew Program might leave Cassidy as the only crew member on the USOS for an extended period of time, Anatoli Ivanishin has been training on US EMU spacesuits. Cassidy has completed multiple EVAs in the past, including an unscheduled EVA. In the unlikely event that an unscheduled EVA is required before additional USOS crew members arrive on the station, then Ivanishin can support Cassidy. Should Ivanishin participate in EVA in the EMU he would be the first Russian cosmonaut to use an EMU since 2007 where Yuri Malenchenko performed the EVA with NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson. Vagner has been to training on operation the USOS Robotic Arm (Canadarm 2) should there be a need to robotically support any EVA carried out by Cassidy and Ivanishin.

At the Cosmonaut Hotel crew quarters in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, Expedition 63 crewmembers Chris Cassidy of NASA (left) and Anatoly Ivanishin (center) and Ivan Vagner (right) of Roscosmos practice rendezvous techniques on a laptop simulator April 1 as they prepare for launch. They will launch April 9 on the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for a six-and-a-half month mission on the International Space Station. Andrey Shelepin/Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center Credit NASA

The three astronauts are scheduled to be in space until October 2020 by which time a SpaceX Crew Dragon should be able to rotate a new crew onto the ISS.

During expedition 63, NASA and SpaceX hope to accomplish the first humans launched to the ISS from American soil since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission is a flight test with crew. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will take the Crew Dragon for a “Test drive” on the Demo-2 mission. NASA hopes to certify all of the systems operational for future crewed missions to the International Space Station.

In addition, there is a possibility that the Boeing CST-100 will also launch to the ISS with a crew prior to the return of Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner.

If Boeing and SpaceX do not successfully qualify either the CST-100 or Crew Dragon, then the staff on the space station could be reduced to the point where almost no science could be conducted on the USOS portion of the ISS.

NASA Worm on SpaceX Falcon 9 Credit NASA
NASA Worm on SpaceX Falcon 9 Credit NASA that will launch NASA astronauts back to ISS on Demo-2 mission

According to the November 2019 Office of Inspector General report on NASA’S MANAGEMENT OF CREW TRANSPORTATION TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION, NASA will likely experience a reduction in the number of USOS crew aboard the ISS from three to one beginning in spring 2020. This reduction in crew is caused by the schedule delays in the development of Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. Coupled with with a reduction in the frequency of Soyuz flights there is less crew that can fly to the International Space Station. NASA has successfully ensured access to the ISS by purchasing unused Soyuz seats when four Soyuz vehicles flew per year. Only two Soyuz vehicles are planned for 2020. Astronauts extending their on-Station assignments longer than the standard 6 months will expose astronauts to more significant space-flight-related health concerns.

Crew Dragon Demo-2 a really long test drive.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 flight is still technically considered a test flight and it will be the first time SpaceX flies astronauts to space. To help reduce the risk of crew staffing on the ISS, the duration length of Demo-2 will be long. NASA is looking at extending Demo-2 beyond the original plan of just a few days to the space station and back.

By Bill D’Zio

Chart prepared by of Seat cost over time for Soyuz purchased seats.
*Notes *1 In February 2017, NASA purchased from Boeing two Soyuz seats and then later three additional seats for $373.5 million or $74.7 million per seat. Boeing had the rights to sell the seats as a result of a settlement with RSC Energia—the Russian company that builds the Soyuz for Roscosmos—due to a failed partnership to develop the capability to launch rockets from an off-shore platform in the ocean.
2 2017 NASA contract for 12 additional seats
3 Due to slippage in the commercial crew schedule, in March 2018 NASA purchased two additional Soyuz seats for $86 million each, one for the September 2019 Soyuz flight and another on the upcoming April 2020 mission.
4 One Soyuz launch failed during launch requiring an abort prior to reaching orbit. Data Source: NASA Office of Inspector General analysis of Soyuz cost data provided by NASA

Soyuz creeping up in cost

NASA has been dependent on Russia for transport to and from the ISS. Over time the cost of seats on the Soyuz crew vehicle have risen.

The Roscosmos’s Soyuz vehicle has been ferrying crew to the International Space Station since November 2000. Originally Soyuz was designed to carry cosmonauts to the Moon, however was repurposed to be the main transport vehicle for Russia over the years. The Soyuz spacecraft is capable of carrying three crewmembers at a time and is certified to remain docked with the ISS for a maximum of 200 days and is launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site.

Until the NASA Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is completed, Roscosmos remains the sole option for transporting astronauts to and from the ISS. At all times, at least one of the Soyuz spacecraft is docked at the International Space Station serving as an emergency lifeboat or escape pot should evacuation be needed. Typically two Soyuz capsules are docked at the ISS which allows up to six astronauts to remain on the International Space Station. The limit of six astronauts is established by the number of seats available for evacuation.

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Someday, people across the world will look back on September 2018, much like we look back on the terror attacks of 9/11 or the safe return of Apollo 13 in 1970. They are touchstone moments in world history. For Americans, they are as indelible as Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the first moon landing.

So, what happened just now? The month isn’t even half over, and the only events we hear about on the news are related to Hurricane Florence and Paul Manafort. (In case you live under a rock or are reading this many years hence, the hurricane made landfall on the coast of the Carolinas, and the lobbyist / political consultant / lawyer / Trump campaign chairman pled guilty to charges and has agreed to cooperate in the continuing Mueller investigation).

No—I am not referring to either event on the USA east coast. I am referring to a saga unfolding 254 miles above the Earth—specifically a Whodunit mystery aboard the International Space Station (ISS). NASA hasn’t seen this level of tawdry intrigue since astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak attacked a rival for another astronaut’s affection—driving across the country in a diaper to confront her love interest.

So What is the Big Deal This Week?!

It didn’t begin as a big deal—and perhaps this is why mainstream news services are slow to pick up on the latest information. But now, in my opinion, it is a very big deal.

A small hole was discovered on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft (a lifeboat) attached to the International Space Station. That hole, about the size of a pea, resulted in the slow decompression of atmosphere. The air that our astronauts breathe was leaking out of ISS and into the void of space.

So far, the story is unremarkable. Ground scientists issued two comfort statements about the apparent accident. They addressed the possible cause and the potential risk:

  1. This small hole could have occurred on the ground (during construction). Alternatively, it could be the result of a micro-meteorite or even man-made space debris. Perhaps a fleck of varnish peeled off of a satellite and collided at high speed with the massive, orbiting space station. No problem. The ISS and each commuter spacecraft that dock with it are designed to sustain collisions with small particles—even ones that punch a pea-sized hole through the hull.
  2. Air pressure in the ISS and in each spacecraft is only 1 atmosphere. This type of small leak could effectively be stemmed by simply applying duct tape.

The initial news event was interesting to space buffs, but it didn’t seem to present a significant threat to our astronauts, nor require a massive technical response. You may recall that duct tape played a critical role in getting the Apollo 13 astronauts safely back to Earth almost 50 years ago. The crisis that they faced was far worse. The solution required extensive impromptu engineering both in Houston and up in the spacecraft. What an awesome historical echo and footnote to an event that captured the hearts and minds of so many people back in 1970.

But the story does not end with a piece of duct tape. In fact, it just got much more interesting…

After a few days, NASA revealed that the hole was intentionally drilled, and the deed probably occurred while the ship was docked at the space station. Since there is no log of activity with tools in this section of the laboratory, it strongly suggests an act of sabotage by one of the astronauts on board.

And now, we have some new information: Guided by ground engineers, astronauts fished an endoscope through the hole to inspect the outside of the spacecraft. Guess what?! That same drill bit damaged the meteorite shield which stands 15 mm beyond the pressurized hull of the spacecraft. This will add significant risk to anyone traveling back to earth in the damaged ship.

One theory is that a member of the crew wanted to create the conditions to more quickly return to Earth. Now, that return trip may present and elevated risk to occupants.
This story has not yet concluded, of course. It will likely conclude with tragedy or triumph. In the better scenario, no one will die—but successful return and reentry will be followed by a criminal conviction or court martial. I am having difficulty envisioning an alternate outcome.
Read about it here. The story is unfolding, but the details are utterly fascinating.

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Yesterday’s program, The Next Space Race, on Bloomberg TV was an excellent introduction to the commercial aerospace companies, SpaceX, the Sierra Nevada Company (SNC), and Boeing. The following are important points, at the stated times, in the program:

0.33 mins: The cost of space travel has clipped our wings.
5:18 mins: How many people knew Google before they started?
7:40 mins: SpaceX costs, full compliment, 4x per year at $20 million per astronaut.
11:59 mins: Noisy rocket launch, notice also the length of the hot exhaust is several times the length of the rocket.
12:31 mins: One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
12:37 mins: Noisy shuttle launch, notice also the length of the hot exhaust is several times the length of the rocket.
13:47 mins: OPF-3, at one time the largest building in the world at 129 million cubic feet.
16:04 mins: States are luring private companies to start up in their states.
16:32 mins: NASA should be spending its money on exploration and missions and not maintenance and operations.
17:12 mins: The fair market value of OPF-3 is about $13.5 million.
17:19 mins: Maintenance cost is $100,000 per month
17:47 mins: Why Florida?
18:55 mins: International Space Station (ISS) cost $60B and if including the Shuttle program, it cost $150B.
19:17 mins: The size of the commercial space launch business.
21:04 mins: Elon Musk has put $100 million of his own money into SpaceX.
21:23 mins: The goals of NASA and private space do not conflict.

1. Cost of ISS is $60B, total cost including the Shuttle program is $150B.

2. SpaceX cost is $20M per astronaut (for 7 astronauts) or a launch cost of $140 million per launch at $560 million per year for 4 launches per year.

3. The next space race is about money.

4. NASA will give a multi billion dollar contract to private space companies to ferry humans & cargo into space and back.

5. Orbiter Processing Facility 3 (OPF-3) valued at $13.5million, and an estimated area of 207,000 sq ft gives a value of $65.22/sq ft.

6. With a maintenance costs of $100,000 gives a per sq ft maintenance costs of $0.48/sq ft/month or $5.80/sq ft/year.

7. Another reason for the Cape Canaveral NASA launch site is the mandatory no/low population down range for rocket launches. At Cape Canaveral this down range is the Atlantic Ocean.

The New York Time reported Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, Calif. — SpaceX, for short — launched its Falcon 9 rocket on schedule at 8:35 p.m. Eastern time from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The Wall Street Journal reported, “trouble-free countdown followed by liftoff at 8:35 p.m. ET, precisely as scheduled.”

Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., the NASA administrator said, “It actually marks the beginning of true commercial spaceflight to take cargo to the International Space Station for us.”

This is a milestone in the relationship between public and private enterprise. The handoff of what public enterprise, NACA/NASA, pioneered, developed and brought to maturity, to private enterprises capable of lowering the costs of space travel with ambitions to do more than stay in low earth orbit.

Congratulations, to Elon Musk, who believed it was possible, and went ahead and proved all the nay sayers wrong. This is an example of how one man’s vision and tenacity has changed the way we perceive the world. Congratulations!