SpaceX Pad Abort Test Set for NET May 5

SpaceX Pad Abort Test Set for NET May 5

SpaceX is planning to conduct a much-anticipated pad abort test on May 5, 2015 as part of its development of a crew version of its Dragon capsule. There is a four-hour launch window that day and a backup opportunity on May 6,

Apparently to moderate expectations, the NASA press release announcing the date cautions that as a “development test, the likelihood of encountering an issue is higher than with operational missions.”  As typical, May 5 is designated as a “no earlier than” (NET) date, meaning that is the first opportunity for the test, but it could be later.

The window opens at 9:30 am ET and live coverage will be provided on NASA TV.  

The test is being conducted under the NASA-SpaceX Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) agreement.  SpaceX is one of the two companies selected by NASA last year to continue with full development of a crew space transportation system to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract.  Boeing is the other with its CST-100 capsule.

Similar to the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo systems of the 1960s and 1970s, the Dragon capsule will be positioned on top of its rocket, unlike the space shuttle where the crew was located in the side-mounted orbiter.  The crew version of Dragon will incorporate an abort system that can carry its occupants to safety in case the rocket explodes, for example.  The intent is the same as the abort systems used by Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo (usually referred to as “escape towers”) although the Dragon design is different.

SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk unveiled the crew version, Dragon V2, last year. NASA expects that it will be operational by 2017, but there are many milestones that must be achieved between now and then, including this test.  (SpaceX already launches a cargo version of Dragon that is not outfitted
to accommodate people.  One of those is currently attached to the ISS.)

The commercial crew program is a public private partnership (PPP) where NASA pays some, but not all, of the development costs and agrees in advance to buy a certain number of launches. The company pays the rest of the development costs and is expected to find other customers to create a viable business case. 

The CCtCAP contracts awarded to SpaceX and Boeing last year guarantee that each company will be paid for two launches, with an option for four more each.  The total contract value is $2.6 billion for SpaceX and $4.2 billion for Boeing if all options are exercised.  Those costs are for the final phases of development and services.  

Neither NASA nor the companies will reveal what percentage of the development costs are being borne by the taxpayers, although NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier acknowledged at a 2012 House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee hearing that the government was paying the majority of those costs and did not disagree when asked if it was 80-90 percent.  At a February 2015 hearing before the House SS&T Space Subcommittee, representatives of SpaceX and Boeing demurred when asked the question, but neither disagreed with committee members who used 90 percent as the figure.  Boeing’s John Mulholland conceded that NASA was paying the “preponderance” of the costs, while SpaceX’s Garrett Reisman said “we put a lot of our own money in … but we’ve also enjoyed a lot of help from NASA.” 

When asked to compare the costs of using a PPP to NASA’s traditional procurement methods, Gerstenmaier said he could not offer a specific number, but the PPP is “extremely more efficient.”

The United States has not been able to launch anyone into space since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  NASA buys ISS crew transportation services from Russia on its Soyuz spacecraft.  Today’s price is about $76 million per seat and NASA needs six seats per year, a total of $456 million annually.  The oft-stated goal of the commercial crew program is to restore America’s ability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil and to stop sending money to Russia.  Gerstenmaier said in his written statement for the February 2015 hearing that while it is difficult to compare the Russian prices (purchased on a per-seat basis) to commercial crew prices (purchased on a per-mission basis), an equivalent price-per-seat over the duration of the CCtCAP contracts will be $58 million.

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