DeFlip Side #152: NASA’s New Era

DeFlip Side #152: NASA’s New Era

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

This week, NASA ushered in what it called a new era in space transportation.

“Today’s announcement sets the stage for what promises to be the most ambitious and exciting chapter in the history of NASA and human space flight.”

That’s NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, where he announced that the space agency had chosen two private companies—Boeing and SpaceX—to reboot America’s manned space program through the development of crew vehicles that will once again provide routine access to space—replacing the Space Shuttle program that ended with the final flight of the Atlantis in 2011.

As I told you in a DeFlip Side episode commemorating that sad event, American astronauts have since been relying the Russian Soyuz capsules to get to and from the International Space Station. But not for much longer, says Bolden.

“Today we’re one step closer to launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia by 2017.”

And for this we can thank the Commercial Crew Program, which NASA created back in 2010—a year before the shuttle program was mothballed.

The goal of the Commercial Crew Program was simple, but revolutionary for NASA: invite private companies to compete in the development of space transportation systems for low-earth orbit, doing the work that the Space Shuttle used to do. It marked a major paradigm shift for an agency that had, since its inception, developed and executed all of its programs in-house.

The Commercial Crew Program guidelines require the winning company to develop a transportation system that will be able to:

Deliver a crew of four astronauts and equipment to and from the space station at least twice a year; guarantee crew safety in the event of an emergency in any phase of the flight; ensure that the spacecraft could serve as a 24-hour lifeboat during a space emergency; and have the ability to stay docked to the ISS for at least 210 days.

Now, after four years, and three phases of competition, NASA has chosen aerospace mainstay Boeing and industry upstart SpaceX to make the Commercial Crew Program a reality. And despite Bolden’s visionary declarations, these choices are a perfect reflection of the agency’s inability to let go of the past despite its desperate desire to embrace the future. Because though they feature a lot of neat state-of-the-art technology, the winning designs seem extremely familiar.

Left: The Dragon V2 by SpaceX. Right: The CST-100 by Boeing

SpaceX’s Dragon V2 (L), Boeing’s CST-100 (R)

Boeing’s spacecraft is called the CST-100, and it’s a slightly bigger, more blunted version of an Apollo command capsule. Only the CST-100 can carry up to seven astronauts. It goes up on the nose of an Atlas V rocket and comes back to Earth utilizing the revolutionary technologies of parachutes and airbags. Despite these antiquated flourishes, Boeing says the CST-100 can remain in orbit for up to six months, and be reused up to 10 times.

SpaceX’s winning design isn’t much different. Dubbed the Dragon Version 2, it’s also a bell-shaped capsule that holds up to seven astronauts. It goes up atop a slightly sleeker Falcon 9 rocket and can also be reused up to ten times. What sets the Dragon V2 apart is that it boasts massive thrusters to aid in landings. Nose upright, the crew capsule touches down on landing legs with the accuracy of a helicopter. It’s evocative of rocket-aged pulp fantasy, and a very retro idea to wrap your head around after three decades of watching the space shuttles land like conventional aircraft.

For all that, the Dragon V2 has an edge over the CST-100, because its prototype has already been successfully tested. SpaceX’s Dragon Version 1 capsule has been making regular cargo flights to the space station since 2012.

The Dragon V2 is also cheaper. As part of winning the Commercial Crew competition, NASA gave both companies grants to continue their work. Based on the needs of their programs, Boeing was awarded $4.2 billion; SpaceX was only awarded $2.6 billion.

Here’s another wrinkle: the Atlas V rockets that Boeing plans to use are powered by Russian-manufactured engines. So that would still leave Russia with uncomfortable leverage over our spacefaring ability; they could use the threat of halted engine production as a blunt political tool.

So it begs the questions: Why did NASA pick two winners with extremely similar designs? And why did the agency give Boeing almost double the money to achieve basically the same thing? And doesn’t it defeat the purpose of the Commercial Crew Program to keep Russia in the mix like this?

I think the answer is that NASA is trying to better position itself for bigger long-term goals. Hear me out.

NASA has been working with Boeing since the agency was founded. Boeing has had a finger in every one of NASA’s pies. You don’t just ignore a 50-year-old relationship like that with a politically powerful company—especially not when Boeing threatened that it would have to layoff workers if it didn’t become a Commercial Crew finalist. The political blowback on NASA would have been epic.

But on the heels of NASA’s announcement, Boeing entered into a deal with an American company called Blue Origin—one of the Commercial Crew competition’s losing teams—and with Lockheed Martin to build a new Atlas V engine here in the States, removing Russia from the equation all together.

NASA suddenly becomes a hero for spurring the creation of a bunch of skilled manufacturing jobs, continuing the space program’s tradition of ushering in technical advances, all the while stimulating the economy and keeping its political allies happy.

Not bad for a $4.2 billion investment, huh? And in the end, the agency will have not one, but two low-orbit delivery systems in place—provided that both Boeing and SpaceX meet the Commercial Crew Program requirements going forward.

And Bolden says that clears the way for bigger and better things:

“We’ll conduct missions that will each set their own impressive roster of firsts. First crew to visit and take samples from an asteroid, first crew to fly beyond the orbit of the moon, perhaps the first crew to grow its own food, and eat it, in space — all of which will set us up for humanity’s next giant leap: the first crew to touch down on and take steps on the surface of Mars.”

So that’s your strategy. Well played, NASA. Well played.

And whether it turns out to be the CST-100 or the Dragon V2, or both, in the end the agency finds itself in a stronger position to fulfill its core mission of bringing humanity to the stars.

Astronaut Mike Finck summed it up eloquently during the announcement of the winners:

“It boggles the mind to think of the possibilities of what we’re going to accomplish. NASA is poised to explore this beckoning universe. These two spacecraft might be pretty small to carry so many big dreams and expectations, but I think, and I know, they will do extremely well.”

I’m sure they will. After all, NASA specializes in big dreams and expectations.



This episode of DeFlip Side features the tracks “Shenzou” and “Gravity” from the Academy Award winning Gravity: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack composed by Stephen Price