Venturer Space COTS Proposal: The S-550

There’s been a lot of blogging recently regarding various teams competing for contracts under the NASA’s COTS program for commercial resupply of the ISS. Most of the focus to-date has been on SpaceX’s Dragon, t/Space’s CXV, and SpaceHab’s Apex capsule (I think I’ve briefly discussed all three at various points on this blog), to the point that some people seem to think that those three were the only three that submitted. I don’t know what the total number of submissions was, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they had at least a dozen proposals including both big companies, little ones, and more traditional Big Aerospace companies. One of the smaller companies that submitted a proposal, but that hasn’t been mentioned anywhere on the other space blogs so far, is Venturer Aerospace.

The founder of Venturer Aerospace is a good friend of mine, George Herbert. George is pretty well known in the community, but if you haven’t happened to meet him, he’s a good guy to know. Venturer is a spinoff company from his other space company, Retro Aerospace, that is focused entirely on the manned capsule part of space transportation (as opposed to Retro which also focuses on boosters, and all sorts of other projects). George’s company is also located here in the Silicon Valley area, and I knew he had submitted a proposal, so I pinged him and asked if he could give us any information about what he was up to. Here’s the formal announcement he sent me a link to (follow the link for some simple art illustrating the basic design of his capsule):

March 15, 2006 – Venturer Aerospace announced today that it is pursuing a contract to demonstrate commercial manned orbital transportation services under the NASA COTS program, utilizing the Venturer S-550 manned orbital capsule vehicle. Venturer’s proposal was submitted to NASA on March 3.

The S-550 is a reusable space capsule launched on expendable launch vehicles such as the SpaceX Falcon-5 or Falcon-9 launch vehicles. The production series S-550 is intended to carry a pilot, two passengers, and over two tons of internal payload or additional passengers to low orbit destinations such as the International Space Station. The full orbital vehicle includes a separate service module and space for external oversized cargo. The S-550 system is intended to fulfil all of NASA’s COTS requirements for cargo and crew rotation.

Under this proposal, Venturer Aerospace intends to develop and test fly unmanned and manned subscale test capsules, and then full sized S-550 test and manned demonstrator capsules. A total of six test flights, including an optional NASA COTS Requirement D station crew rotation demonstration flight, are included in our test program plan. S-550 development and demonstration test flights for the NASA COTS Requirement A, B, and C cargo/logistics missions are intended to take place from 2007 to 2009 at a cost to NASA of about a quarter of the total $500 million COTS program budget, including launch costs. The Requirement D followon demonstration flight will take place in 2010 under our proposed schedule.

This same vehicle is intended to serve both commercial and NASA government customers. Orbital space tourist operations are a large part of the Venturer Aerospace midterm business plan, and we intend to operate commercial tourist services at lower prices than competing international vehicles.

The 10 foot diameter S-550 capsule system is designed to launch inside the payload shroud of the SpaceX Falcon-9 launch vehicle. The capsule is a sphere-cone geometry, very similar to a scaled up version of the Discoverer/Corona spy satellite film return capsules, which flews hundreds of successful missions in the 1960s and 70s.

The S-550 capsule has a design weight of 3,200 kilograms (7,040 lb), with a 1,750 kilogram (3,850 lb) service module and combined internal and external cargo capacity of 2,500 kilograms (5,500 lb). The S-550 uses a traditional ablative heatshield during atmospheric reentry, and parachutes to a landing at a continental US landing site. The nose cone of the S-550 includes a no-moving-parts metal foam shock absorber system which will absorb landing impact and cushion the crew. After landing, the outer shell and heatshield will be removed and replaced, with the reusable inner capsule being refitted for further flights.

Initial testing will include parachute and shock absorber landing tests of subscale and full scale S-550 capsules, and launch escape system tests. These tests will establish the S-550’s ability to safely handle two of the more risky parts of actual orbital flight.

Venturer Aerospace intends to begin full scale engineering and space operations from a facility in Hayward, California later during 2006.

It will be interesting to see how he does. One of the nice things about George’s approach as he’s explained it to me in the past is that it is very incremental, and he can get to some of his first risk reduction technology demonstrators off of very little initial investment. With SpaceX not needing a huge amount of money to finish their design, and SpaceHab already trying to privately develop their Apex modules, one can hope that there will be enough seed money left over in the COTS program to fund a few of these other approaches. I’d love to see three or four US companies flying people and cargo to space on a regular basis before the end of this decade. That’d be tres cool.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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11 Responses to Venturer Space COTS Proposal: The S-550

  1. Dick Stafford says:

    Cool. That one is new to me and has been added to my list. I have seen reports of 9 – 10 bids. The only ‘big name’ is LockMart. I’m also guessing that a good portion of the other original CEV bidders may also have bid.

  2. Big D says:

    Is anybody *not* going with a Corona design? πŸ™‚

  3. Jon Goff says:

    Big D,
    Good point. I’ve only ever really seen proposals for three general flavors of capsules: an apollo style shape, a carona capsule style, or with a lifting body style. There are other variations on the theme, particularly if the “capsule” is really just a manned upper stage, but it isn’t too surprising that people would stick with a few, very well studied geometries.


  4. Ferris Valyn says:

    Part of the issue with the big names at least *appearing* not to go after it is I think ( at least, I’ve heard from a fairly reliable source) that they were explicitly prevented from directly going after COTS. LockMart got around that visa vie setting up a sub-sidary or something of the like, and I’d be surprized if Boeing and the others didn’t try some back door stuff as well

  5. Mr. X says:

    I don’t understand why Venturer wants to fit the capsule inside the Falcon’s fairing instead of replacing the Falcon fairing. Seems to me like it would be harder to abort, and it would seriously cramp the volume of the capsule.

  6. kert says:

    what bothers me is that too many eggs are heading into one, SpaceX Falcon basket. Just what if it does not materialize for whatever reason ?
    There does not appear to be even other Falcon I size launcher on horizon, not to speak about F5.

  7. Jon Goff says:

    Mr X,
    I’m not entirely sure of his reasoning, but I think it has to do with the seating direction. Basically when his vehicle launches, the “nose” of the corona capsule shape is actually facing down toward the business end of the rocket. That way the seats for the crew/passengers always face the same direction, and all the g-loads are always experienced in the best possible way. I think that by keeping it as small as he is, it also allows them to ship the capsule via airplane without too much hassle, which greatly cuts down on logistics costs. There may be some other reasons, but that’s my best guess.

    As for the fairing being more dangerous in case of an abort, I’m not sure if that’d really be the case. I’m sure George has thought it out thoroughly. If you go to Space Access this year, I’m sure you can ask him there (if he doesn’t bring it up in his presentation).


  8. Jon Goff says:

    One important thing to realize is that there actually are a lot of Falcon V/IX class vehicles out there at the moment. Single Stick Atlas V or Delta IV would do the trick, as would a Sea Launched Zenit. They’re a lot more expensive, but if you were flying half a dozen to a dozen times per year, the price should go down quite a bit. If you got stuck doing that the overall price wouldn’t be as good, but it would still likely be better than the status quo.

    That said, I would like to see more Falcon V/IX sized boosters. If t/Space gets money for their booster, that’d help. SpaceDev is also looking at one in that class. As is Rocketplane/Kistler…It’ll be interesting to see if *any* of the above (including SpaceX) actually succeed, but there is a decent number of companies at least working on the problem.

    All that said, I think that actual reusable vehicles (instead of just refurbishable vehicles) are closer than the conventional wisdom expects. If I’m right, this whole discussion will be rather acedemic.


  9. Ferris Valyn says:

    Hey Jon,

    are you gonna blog about the other COTS proposals, if and when details about them come out?

  10. Jon Goff says:

    Sure, if I get the time to. At the moment, work is getting kind of busy, with us trying to finish up development on our reusable engine, and putting together the vehicle, and doing some liason work with some of the places we might end up testing at…….ugh…

    Most likely I won’t say much unless it’s really interesting, or unless nobody else seems to be commenting on it.


  11. アむツェヴ says:

    Regardin Mr. X’s comment, Soyuz launches under a payload fairing, and discards it only above the atmosphere. Given that Soyuz’s escape system actually fired in anger successfuly, I do not see a safety issue. The fairing comes apart in two halves, peapod style. In case of a launch pad abort, the dynamic pressure only helps to pull halves away.

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