Spaceflight Insider

NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo efforts face changing landscape

Commercial Crew Program International Space Station astronaut Earth orbit NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Programs have both made steady progress toward handling the responsibility of sending astronauts and supplies to-and-from the sole destination in low-Earth orbit (LEO) – the International Space Station. The road to orbit has not been a completely smooth one, however.

Perhaps the most obvious challenge that these companies are facing is accomplishing something that has been the sole purview of NASA for more than five decades. At First, SpaceX and Orbital ATK met with success after success. However, space flight in its present state – one using rockets to send payloads to orbit – is never “routine”. A fact that was driven home between Oct. 2014 and June of this year (2015).

On Oct. 28, 2014, an Orbital ATK (Orbital Sciences Corporation at that time) Antares rocket and its payload of a Cygnus spacecraft were lost when, it is believed, one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 rocket engines failed due to an issue with the engine’s turbopump.

Boeing CST-100

Boeing CST-100. Image Credit: Boeing

Even before last year’s accident, Orbital ATK had been working to replace the AJ26 with the RD-181 rocket engine. The Dulles, Virginia-based firm is hoping to have the new, enhanced version of Antares in service by March of 2016.

Not wanting to fall behind on its commitment to NASA, Orbital ATK has selected ULA’s Atlas V rocket to send two of the “enhanced” Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS. Each of these vessels is capable of carrying some 7,700 lbs (3,493 kg) of cargo, experiments, and crew supplies to the orbiting lab.

Eight months to the day after Orbital ATK saw the loss of the Orb-3 mission, SpaceX encountered its own setback. On June 28, 2015, a Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket exploded in the skies above NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida after a strut within the rocket’s second stage failed, resulting in an overpressure event that caused the rocket and its Dragon spacecraft to be lost.

Boeing, who was awarded a total potential contract value of some $4.2 billion under the Commercial Crew transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (with SpaceX receiving a potential award of some $2.6 billion) in September of 2014 to have its CST-100 (since renamed the Starliner) spacecraft ferry crews to the International Space Station, has had a rather unique shift in the launch vehicle it had selected to send crews aloft.

Initially, Boeing had selected the Atlas V booster as the launch vehicle of choice for the CST-100; however, facing competition from SpaceX, ULA opted to field a single new booster (instead of the two long-serving launch systems that the Colorado-based firm has been using). A Boeing representative noted that this particular change is not expected to impact their ability to send crews to the space station.

“We’re baselined for Atlas V, which is what we’ll be flying until there’s another proven launch vehicle that is certified to fly humans. We’re launch agnostic so we could fly on other rockets in the Atlas V weight category, Vulcan or others,” Boeing’s Kelly Kaplan told SpaceFlight Insider.

Owing to the similar attributes of the Vulcan to the Atlas V, United Launch Alliance will use Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 3E in California to conduct Vulcan launches. These pads are currently being used to conduct Atlas launches.

Moreover, the selection of the Atlas V as the launch vehicle of choice for the Starliner has required the landscape at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to literally change.

A new Crew Access Tower is being assembled at SLC-41 in preparation for the first flights of crews out at CCAFS since the Oct. 11, 1968, flight of Apollo 7.

Crew Access Tower assembly.

Crew Access Tower assembly. Photo Credits: NASA Kennedy

In terms of SpaceX, the NewSpace firm is working to not only return the booster to service but also to increase the rocket’s capabilities as well.

The Orbcomm-2 mission does not require a relight of the second stage engine following orbital insertion. Flying the Orbcomm-2 mission first will, therefore, allow SpaceX to conduct an on-orbit test of the second stage relight system after the Orbcomm-2 satellites have been safely deployed. This on-orbit test, combined with the current qualification program to be completed prior to launch, will further validate the second stage relight system and allow for optimization of the upcoming SES-9 mission and following missions to geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Atlas V 401 launch of the USA-242 (GPS IIF-4) satellite.

Atlas V 401 launch of the USA-242 satellite. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

One firm, perhaps more so than any other, has not fared well as NASA embraces the privatization of some of what has been the purview of the space agency for more than five decades – Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The firm, a merger of Aerojet and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (2013), recently paid a settlement that a report appearing on the Sacramento Business Journal noted that it “wipes out the c earnings for 2015 – and then some”. In his Oct. 14, 2015, article, Mark Anderson, a writer with the outlet, noted:

“The recent $50 million legal settlement over the explosion of an Antares rocket launch last fall cost Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc. its earnings so far this year — and more.

“A company filing on Tuesday shows it lost $23.6 million through the first nine months of its fiscal year, including $50 million spent on a settlement in September over the Antares accident […].”

Many of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s present menu of offerings, currently, won’t have customers by the next decade. As noted recently on this site, ULA has passed on the AJ-60A solid rocket motors for use on Vulcan and has even gone so far as to begin phasing them out on the Atlas V as well (Reuters’ Irene Klotz went so far as to say that the AJ-60A had been “dumped“). That marks a notable change from a down-select decision on the SRBs, as it was supposed to happen next year.

The decision to move away from the AJ-60A came shortly after Aerojet Rocketdyne’s offer to purchase ULA was declined. Aerojet Rocketdyne’s woes don’t end there, however.

ULA has been eyeing the BE-4 rocket engine for Vulcan’s first stage, and the BE-3 for the new booster’s Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES).

With efforts to have both the Atlas V and Delta IV lines retired by the early 2020s (Vulcan has to be certified for the various missions it would be tasked to fly first), Aerojet Rocketdyne will still play a part in the LSP market through that time frame. However, once Vulcan is certified to conduct missions for the Department of Defense, as well as NASA’s CRS and CCP programs and commercial flights, the primary vehicle that will use engines produced by the California-based company is NASA’s Space Launch System.

The legacy J-2X and RS-25 (leftovers from the Shuttle Program) engines will be used on initial flights of the super heavy-lift booster with the RL10C also being tapped for the massive new rocket. It is unclear if this will be enough to sustain Aerojet Rocketdyne as SLS is currently slated to launch at the rate of about once every other year.

Commercial Crew Program logo.

Commercial Crew Program logo. (Click to enlarge.) Image credit: NASA

However, the challenges that these firms have faced in trying to carry out these missions and to survive in the NewSpace era go beyond issues of logistics and flight tolerances.

On June 11, 2015, a little more than two weeks before the CRS-7 mishap, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved NASA’s 2016 budget – it was $334 million less than what the space agency said was needed to conduct NASA’s Commercial Crew Program adequately. That is according to a report issued by Space News’ Jeff Foust.

That decision caused NASA’s current Administrator, Charles Bolden to express his displeasure – as noted in an article appearing on SpaceFlight Insider.

NASA has worked since 2006 to enable private firms to handle the responsibility of sending cargo to the ISS; with the responsibility of handling the task of sending crews to the station getting underway about four years later. The agency is working with a two-pronged approach, one that sees the space agency focusing on deep space exploration of locales as exotic as Mars a possibility – while private firms handle what NASA has been doing in terms of LEO operations for the past half century.

The first flights under the Commercial Crew Program are currently scheduled to occur no-earlier-than 2017. However, with the budgetary and political changes that are likely to take place in the coming year, these flights will likely slip. As Bolden noted, the main challenges that NASA has in terms of achieving both the goals of enabling the efforts of its commercial partners and returning to the business of crewed space exploration is sustained funding and political will.


Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

AJR has a full range of rocket engines available. It seems that they should be able to market the RS-27A to some of the emerging new space launch companies. Does anyone know what they charge for the RS-27A? Their Boeing/Lockmart/ULA gravy train appears to be drying up in a few years, unless Vulcan runs into some major problems.

⚠ Commenting Rules

Post Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *