Saturday, June 26, 2010

Lifeboat Politics

There's another approaching train wreck with the Orion Crew Rescue Vehicle, or "lifeboat" as it is starting to be called. For a start, Lockheed Martin is saying it will cost $4.5 billion to develop.. others are saying more like $6 billion and it won't be ready until 2013.. others are saying 2015. For comparison, that's 9 to 12 times as much as SpaceX has spent on everything that they have done. There's no word yet on how much each Orion Lifeboat will actually cost or what it will be launched on.

Orbital Sciences has smelled the blood in the water and is attacking. They think they can do it for cheaper.. no word on faster. Back in 2009, Elon Musk stood in front of the Augustine committee and suggested that his company SpaceX could deliver a lifeboat capability shortly after the first few cargo flights were completed.. that would most likely be early 2012. No price was given but it would most certainly be funded under COTS-D and that's only $300 million.

More importantly, no-one has made public statements of how long the endurance would be on these lifeboats. The original proposal for the Orion spacecraft called for an endurance of 210 days. The SpaceX DragonLab specifications indicate that version of the Dragon vehicle can stay on-orbit for 2 years. Orbital Sciences has yet to specify an endurance for their Cygnus spacecraft. The Sierra Nevada Dreamchaser may be available by 2014 but there's no word yet on its endurance. The Boeing capsule CST-100 will not be designed to stay in space for long periods of time ruling it out of the lifeboat competition. This means they'll have to rely on someone else's lifeboat if they're going to carry long duration crews to the ISS, but there's plenty of short duration missions that a cost effective vehicle could do.

To me, the primary data point for evaluating a lifeboat is how long it can stay on-orbit. The Soyuz is the best lifeboat available and has a 6 month endurance. The Shuttle can't operate as a lifeboat at all, with a mere 14 day endurance. If SpaceX can really beat the Soyuz by 18 months that's a massive enabling capability for full utilization of the International Space Station and should be brought online as soon as possible. If the Orion Lifeboat can only beat the Soyuz by 1 month is that worth $4.5 billion?


  1. I agree..have a compitation--let the best craft win. The only trouble with tha, it does not involve politics so that will not happen. I think SpaceX could do it for alot less than over $2billion that Lockheed wants. But what people forget--Orion was not planned in that role--it is meant for BEO.

  2. Coastal Ron2:23 AM

    In reading the article about the Boeing CST-100, the statement was made that:

    "The capsule is being built for short missions to the space station, meaning it will not be designed to stay in space for long periods of time."

    That could be interpreted to mean that the capsule does not have the capability to serve as a lifeboat. Or it could have been talking about that because it carries seven passengers and is so small, it's not designed for long-duration missions. If the later were the case, lifeboat capabilities could not be ruled out yet.

    From what I remember, one of the key reasons for Soyuz docking life is their battery, and that SpaceX was planning a better battery system for Dragon. I guess we need more details...

  3. Orbital has zero chance on any competition. They build nothing. All they do is assemble other ppl's work. As such, their cygnus is actually an ATV from ESA. It was not designed for re-entry and would be very expensive and lengthy to come up with one.

    Personally, I think that SpaceX is the best choice with Boeing doing some mods to get theirs. And yes, if you throw 500 million their way, they WILL chance their mind.

    As to L-Mart, well, they have decided that they do not want to compete and just want a free hand-out via cost-plus.

  4. Anonymous5:39 PM

    Coastal Ron: I read somewhere a few years ago that the most most limiting factor for on-orbit life of a Soyuz lifeboat was decomposition over time of its hydrogen peroxide RCS propellant. This decomposition is hard to predict because even trace amounts of particle contaminants can worsen it a lot, so generous margins must included.

    I am not quite sure if it is necessarily the most narrow limit measured in on-orbit time, but I think it must be the most expensive to do anything about since they probably would have to replace the RCS thrusters with ones using more stable storable propellants like hydrazine+NOx.

    -- InfraNut

  5. This would further push toward Orion being used as the Commercial Crew capsule. It will be argued that they need a life boat, and a 6 month stay transport that serves as a lifeboat after carrying the crew up, will make seance.

    Course commercial is pretty much dead - Then its back to the argument that we need a life boat and can't rely just on Soyuz for that....