Space Access Update #144 7/6/15
copyright 2015 by Space Access Society

Contents This Issue:

Station Supply Update

Latest From SpaceX


Station Supply Update

A Russian Progress cargo ship successfully docked with Station in the early hours of Sunday morning. This adds a month to International Space Station's supply reserves, sufficient now for roughly through November.

NASA's policy (stated last week) is to begin planning for evacuating Station when supply reserves drop to 45 days, IE mid-September before Sunday's docking, and now mid-October. Station is designed to continue operating uncrewed, but the risk rises of losing Station to a hardware problem that would normally be fixed manually, and of course only the minority of research projects that don't require manual tending could continue.

A Japanese HTV supply ship is scheduled for mid-August that would further extend reserves through the end of the year. The next Progress mission, 61P, is currently scheduled for September 21st. Progress 62P is listed for November 19th. Orbital-ATK's first post-accident Cygnus supply flight, currently set for December, is under consideration for rescheduling as early as October if there's a need.

And then there's SpaceX's next Dragon cargo mission, CRS-8, in the pipeline for a September 2nd launch until last week's CRS-7 Dragon cargo mission failure. Obviously CRS-8 launch will depend on either a fix for whatever brought down CRS-7, or an emergency severe enough to persuade all involved to sign off on launch-and-pray.

Given the three different supply-ship failures since last October - a Cygnus, a Progress, and now a Dragon - it looks as if Station's supply situation remains tight, but stable for now. Our take is that there's probably enough margin still to deal with either another near-term supply mission failure, or a hardware failure on Station requiring priority shipment of spare parts that would bump a significant amount of routine supplies. If bad luck continues to arrive in bunches, however, there could be serious consequences.

Station of course represents a hundred billion-plus dollar investment on the part of US taxpayers, as well as many billions more from the international partners. It is also a unique space research resource that has only recently begun to hit its stride. Doing what it takes to preserve and enhance Station is at this point unarguably good policy.

Our congratulations, by the way, to the unsung Station managers who a long time ago arranged for there to be this many different ways to ship supplies up. Were it not for that level of foresight, Station might well now be in serious trouble, if not already lost.

Commercial Crew Lessons

The lessons for shipping Station crew up and back are obvious. There's currently only one means of doing so, the Russian Soyuz capsule. Any problem with Soyuz between now and the first of the two US Commercial Crew project vehicles coming online puts Station at risk. After years of foot-dragging, Congress should fully fund the Commercial Crew vehicle development program for the next two critical years.

Further, NASA should develop contingency plans to accelerate readiness of at least one Commercial Crew vehicle in a Soyuz availability emergency. At a House Appropriations hearing last March, Administrator Bolden stated NASA policy in the event of a cutoff of Soyuz access would simply be to evacuate Station (news story, video of testimony).

The statement was made in the context of a political rather than mission-failure Soyuz cutoff, but given the spate of other launch failures and an apparent recent general deterioration in Russian space vehicle reliability, we think it's becoming obvious that NASA urgently needs a backup plan should Soyuz go down for an extended period.

If the US Commercial Crew contractors haven't already been asked by NASA to lay out how much each could accelerate its first crewed Station flight in an emergency, what resources it would need to do so, and what increased risks might be involved, they should be, immediately. (Regarding the question of risk, there is nothing sacred about NASA's current protracted Commercial Crew safety certification process. Some parts of it no doubt do provide cost-effective safety improvements - others, perhaps not so much. Given what would be at stake with a Soyuz failure, a hard look at which is which is warranted.)


Latest From SpaceX

SpaceX has been quiet since shortly after last week's failed attempt to launch cargo to Station, most recently saying just that they're looking at the data and running through various possibilities as to what went wrong. This is not unreasonable, given the several dozen commercial launch customers they have signed up, plus the Defense and NASA buyers currently considering their services. With multiple billions in business on the line, it makes sense to be very sure of the facts before sharing them.

But now SpaceX's founder has tweeted "Expect to reach preliminary conclusions regarding last flight by end of week. Will brief key customers & FAA, then post on our website."

Under the circumstances, our take on this is that SpaceX very likely already has reached preliminary conclusions internally, but they plan to spend this week double and triple-checking them before sharing them with their customers, the FAA, and then the public.

This is good news in that it now seems less likely the investigation will drag on inconclusively (as sometimes happens), forcing a time-consuming shotgun "fix everything it might be" approach, then a launch-and-pray. It's still an open question, of course, how long the fix (or fixes) might take to implement, but we think the odds for SpaceX's return to flight taking weeks rather than months just got somewhat better.


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