Beyond SpaceX: Five companies seeking to change space travel – Sierra Nevada Corporation –

On May 19, SpaceX will attempt to become the first private company to dock a capsule with the space station. Since the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, Presidents Bush and Obama have directed NASA to turn the job of transporting cargo and crew to the station over to private firms.

NASA already has $3.5 billion in cargo contracts with two rocket makers – SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation – and has added $270 million in seed money to four companies to develop technologies to transport crews. This summer, NASA expects to provide additional money to help private space companies develop full-scale systems. Here are the key players:

– , Staff writer

1. Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX)

The SpaceX Dragon capsule is lifted to be placed atop its cargo ring inside a processing hangar at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in this Nov. 16, 2011, photo. (Kim Shiflett/NASA/AP/File)

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, a co-founder of the online payment service,PayPal. Mr. Musk’s team has developed rockets aimed at driving down the cost of launching payloads and people into space.

In 2008, after three failures, the company’s two-stage Falcon 1 rocket became the first privately financed rocket to reach orbit. It lofted its first satellite in 2009.

The company’s next model, the Falcon 9, is designed to be the workhorse for space-station resupply missions and for launching commercial satellites. As a resupply ship, it’s topped by a capsule (called Dragon) designed to carry cargo and – in the future – space-station crew members. So far, NASA has spent $75 million on the company’s efforts to develop the human-transportation portion of its efforts.

Falcon 9 aced its first test launch in June 2010, topped with a dummy capsule. A second launch six months later put the company into the record books as the first privately financed rocket maker to orbit and recovery a capsule.

As early as the end of this year, SpaceX plans to test its next rocket, the Falcon Heavy, in a launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It’s designed to loft up to 53 metric tons of cargo to low-Earth orbit, more than twice the capacity of the space shuttle. It would be the most powerful rocket in the US stable since NASA’s Saturn V first launched astronauts to the moon’s surface in 1969.

2. Orbital Sciences Corporation

An animation of Cygnus, Orbital Sciences' cargo craft, approaching the International Space Station. (Orbital Sciences Corporation)

Orbital Sciences, founded in 1982, is building its Antares rocket to deliver cargo to the space station and perform commercial satellite launches. Using up to three stages, the rocket is designed to carry up to 6.1 metric tons to low-Earth orbit.

In addition, the company is building a pressurized cargo craft, dubbed Cygnus, to ride atop Antares. It is designed to carry up to 2.7 metric tons of cargo to the space station. UnlikeSpaceX’s Dragon capsule, designed to return cargo to the ground as well as deliver it to the space station, Cygnus is a one-and-done craft, like the unmanned resupply craft the Russians, Japanese, and Europeans use.

In all, Orbital Sciences has a stable of four rockets, including its Taurus ground-launched rocket and its Pegasus rocket, which is launched from the underside of a modified Lockheed L-1011 airliner. Pegasus was first launched in 1990 and can loft hardware weighing up to 1,000 pounds.

The company plans its first Antares test launch from NASA‘s facility at Wallops Island, Va., and its first space-station resupply run toward the end of 2012.

3. Boeing

An artist's rendering of the Boeing CST-100 capsule approaching th International Space Station. (Boeing)

Boeing has been making things that fly – and more recently rocket into space – since 1917. So far, NASA has spent $132 million on the aerospace giant’s effort to design a crew capsule that could ferry up to seven people to and from the space station or other destinations in low-Earth orbit.

Much like the Apollo capsule, Boeing’s CST-100 crew capsule is designed to land in water or on land – using airbags for flotation or to cushion the impact of a terrestrial touchdown. The craft is undergoing tests – most recently drop tests of its parachute system over a dry lake bed near Alamo, Nev., north of Las Vegas.

Ultimately the capsule would sit atop an Atlas V rocket – an updated version of the workhorse used for the last four Mercury missions in the early 1960s. Designers also envision it mating with other current or future expendable rockets.

4. Blue Origin

Blue Origin’s Space Vehicle undergoes wind-tunnel tests. (Blue Origin)

The Kent, Wash.-based company founded founder Jeff Bezos is slated for nearly $27 million in NASA money to develop a fully reusable spacecraft.

Unlike SpaceX or BoeingBlue Origin is beginning this process with a Project Mercury-like approach – developing a system to take researchers on suborbital flights. Dubbed New Shepherd, the vehicle would employ a reusable booster and capsule. At the doorstep of space, the booster would release the capsule to continue its suborbital arc. The booster would then return to earth, landing vertically under rocket power so it could be reused. The capsule would return via parachute to a location near the launch site.

The New Shepherd booster underwent its latest test in August, after a string of apparently successful tests (the company is reported to be highly secretive) since November 2006. The August test reportedly ended in failure.

In the meantime, the company is developing a capsule for orbital missions, also designed to launch initially atop an Atlas V, and later on Blue Origin’s own propulsion modules.

5. Sierra Nevada Corporation

An animation of the Dream Chaser docking with the International Space Station. (Sierra Nevada Corporation Space Systems)

Sierra Nevada Corporation‘s entrant into NASA‘s commercial-crew venture is a craft known as Dream Chaser. It’s a shuttle-like glider designed to carry from two to seven astronauts. The craft initially was designed for suborbital flights. The focus now is to perch it atop an Atlas V for use as crew transportation to and from the space station. So far, NASA has provided $100 million in seed money to advance the design.

Based in Sparks, Nev., the company was founded in 1963 as an aerospace electronics firm. It merged with SpaceDev, a company founded in 1997 to advance commercial human spaceflight, and two of SpaceDev’s subsidiaries in 2009.

6. Alliant Techsystems, Inc. (ATK)

The Liberty launch vehicle will use existing infrastructure at Kennedy Space Center, such as the Mobile Launcher shown here. (ATK)

ATK produced the solid-fuel motors for the space shuttle and the booster for NASA‘s Ares 1 program, which Mr. Obama canceled. The company, based in Arlington, Va., is offering up a version of the Ares rocket called Liberty, complete with crew capsule and ground and mission support infrastructure.

The company says the system could be ready for its first test flight in 2014 and make its first crewed flight to the space station in 2016. The rocket also could be configured to carry cargo – up to 20 metric tons to low-Earth orbit.

ATK has received no money from NASA under its commercial-crew development program, but has received technical assistance from the space agency

Credit: The Christian Science Monitor

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