Apparently Some People Keep Secrets Better Than Others

Copied from Kieth's website, www.spaceref.com so we don't end up stealing any of his bandwidth.  Sorry Keith for the bandwidth problem.
Wow.

I had figured that SpaceX was working on a manned capsule already, they have more or less said so already, but I had no idea that they had gotten anywhere near as far as implied in this Space News article:

Neither Dragon nor its Falcon 9 rocket is ready to roll out to the launch pad. But the Falcon 9 is in development for a 2007 debut and some Dragon hardware – including a full-scale working prototype – already has been built.

“As part of a top secret project, we’ve already built a prototype flight crew capsule, including a thoroughly tested 30-man-day-life-support system, which is sitting on our factory floor right now,” Musk told Space News. “It doesn’t meet all the NASA requirements, so it will probably not see flight, but it has served as a valuable learning experience.”

Now, while it is possible to game the definition of “working prototype” a bit, I think that this sounds like something more substantial than just a fancy looking mockup, and that’s cool. There’s far too much viewgraphing and far to little hardware bending going on in this industry.

A lot of other people have commented on this already, so I’ll just list a few of the things I like or noticed about it:

  • The system comes with a robotic arm. That is primarily to allow the module to be “berthed” instead of “docked”, but it also opens up a lot of other ancillary possiblities that I’ve put some skullsweat into. First off, it allows you to do satellite recovery operations in the case of a satellite put into a bad orbit, or that was damaged on orbit. Admittedly, this would likely be limited to LEO for now, but is a good start on future capabilities. Also, it gives the ability to do on-orbit checkout of satellites. With a 1-2 person crew, no CBM, an arm, and the rest of the mass designated to a medium sized satellite (say 2000kg or so unfueled), that allows you intact recovery of your satellite in case of a launch failure, on-orbit checkout, and the ability to bring the thing back and fly it again if the bird fails. It would also make mating a GEO sat to a booster a lot easier. The list goes on. Basically, I’m a huge fan of the arm, even if it cuts into cargo mass. [Update: As one of the commenters noticed, it turns out that I misread the article. The Dragon itself would not contain a robotic arm, but would use the space station arm for berthing. While this should work great for the station, it means a lot of the other ideas I brought up really don’t actually apply. Teach me to blog something when I’m this tired]
  • Using a CBM for the connection. This allows for swapping out full sized station payload racks (I keep forgetting the FLA for those things, ISPR maybe?), unlike the other sorts of docking systems. This allows for bringing cargo and experiments up, taking cargo and experiments down, and doing a lot of the logistical crud that NASA has been having the Shuttle do (thus allowing us to kill the stupid thing sooner).
  • SpaceX doesn’t appear to be trying to “suck the air out of the room” for the COTS contract. They say that they’re asking for less than the full amount of money, and most of that for paying for demonstration flights (as opposed to paying for the development itself). Since they already have hardware partially built, they could have tried to shoulder out all competition, but by leaving some additional COTS money for at least 1-2 other firms, that will be good for everyone, in my opinion. While there may be some counterexamples, most serious industries have more than one serious competitor involved. Jeff Greason of XCOR likes pointing out that a “rising tide lifts all boats”, and I think he’s right. By leaving it open for at least one or two other serious players in the field, I think SpaceX is showing its wisdom in this matter like they did with the DARPA FALCON SLV project. By only asking for a bit of money for demonstration flights, they are helping foster a real competitive industry.
  • Did anyone else notice that Elon mentioned that the $100M SpaceX has spent to date has gone not just to Falcon I, but also to doing some of the development work for Falcon V/IX, getting two launch complexes setup, preparing test infrastructure for future vehicles, and a capsule as well? That means his investment on just Falcon I is a lot lower than some space pundits have been assuming.
  • In a previous announcement about their plans for manned vehicles (I think it was back around when they announced the Merlin 2 and BFR), they said that they would allow other companies to launch capsules on Falcon IX and that in fact they would charge themselves internally the same rate as they charge external customers. Ie, they won’t be internally subsidizing the launch costs for their capsules. I think that this is also a cool move on their part, as it encourages others to develop capsules that can fly on their vehicle, which should substantially increase their flight rates.

The only thing I can complain about really is that I think it would’ve been cool to see the DC-X like, VTVL capsule idea they had originally been working on. That would’ve been 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.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

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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21 Responses to Apparently Some People Keep Secrets Better Than Others

  1. Neil H. says:

    Basically, I’m a huge fan of the arm, even if it cuts into cargo mass.

    I could be mistaken, but the impression I got from the article is that they’re planning on using the robotic arm on the ISS, rather than equipping each capsule with an arm.

    Of course, the Canadarm2 has a mobile base which it can re-attach to various ports, so if the capsule has such an attachment port the arm could then use the capsule as its base.

  2. Jon Goff says:

    Neil,
    D’oh! You’re right of course, on rereading the article it actually does say they’d be using the station arm itself. I thought they were saying that it would be using the same style of arm as the station, but that was a misread on my part. C’est la vie. A miniature arm of their own would be useful though.

    That’s what I get for posting while sleep deprived.
    ~Jon

  3. Anonymous says:

    As far as I know, the capsule doesn’t have an arm. They intend to berth using the station’s SSRMS. The proposed collaboration with MacDonald Dettwiler is to aid in intergrating power & data grapple fixtures and related interfaces with their capsule.

    The DC-X-like powered landing is almost certainly motivated by their interest in landing capsules on Mars… parachutes alone can’t bring vehicles landing there to a safe terminal velocity. so you have the option of either landing completely under power from a high terminal velocity, or landing under rocket power later from from a lower (parachute assisted) terminal velocity. The results of trading between pure powered & parachute-assisted powered landings actually aren’t completely obvious, but a pure-powered decent does seem to result in a simpler system.

    If Falcon I successfully flies, I’d hate to be a suborbital launch provider, or, even moreso, one of their investors. If it does, they’ll eventually make it to Falcon 5/9 and a capsule. Given the choice between $5-10 million per seat for some orbital time in a Dragon, or $100 thousand for five minutes playing with M&Ms on a parabolic trajectory, I know how I’d rather spend my money. Suborbital flights will be about as prestigious as fake gold bling. ๐Ÿ™‚ (More seriously, though, I suspect they’ll still be able to make a good profit… just look at how much money QVC makes selling pseudojewelry! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Anonymous says:

    Heh, of course you already figured out about the arm by the time I was able to get my comment through the blogger hiccups… ๐Ÿ™‚

    Keep up the good posts, Jon. I’ve enjoyed reading them.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hey Jon, Danny here.

    You’re right it’s more than a mock-up. What I got from the article, and I’m sure you did too even if you didn’t say so, was that the proto-type they’ve got can actually fly and have people in it. Oh, re-entry is another story, but they’d survive until then. ๐Ÿ™‚

    “The prototype lacks a reaction control system for maneuvering in space and a heat shield that would prevent it from burning up upon re-entry, Musk said, but could otherwise be launched into space.”

    I’m with you. SpaceX has been able to get amazing things done without a lot of fat.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I think this thing reenters base first and uses rockets for at least some part of the landing deceleration.

    It uses the same propellant (though not nessecarily the same engines) for the RCS and OMS as for the escape during a launch accident (no separate escape tower).

    So it will have some pretty powerful engines to separate itself from the disintegrating booster in a hurry. It would make sense to use these same engines for vertical landing or at least for additional deceleration during a parachute touchdown.

    If you look at this image http://images.spaceref.com/news/2006/space.x.1.m.jpg

    you will notice that there is something like a heat shield at the end of the conical section (the brown, round thing). And the propellant tanks are *inside* this heat shield.

    The section with the crates for unpressurized cargo is probably an optional, expendable addition. Only the short cylindrical “interstage” around the heat shield is nessecary to mate it to a falcon 9.

    The best way to land this thing would be to do a powered landing on the deck of a ship. If for some reason the engines don’t work, you can always do a rough, but survivable splashdown next to the ship.

    I think that is enough speculation for now.

    regards,

    Rรผdiger Klaehn

  7. meiza says:

    I’m not a huge fan of vertical rocket landing, it might impose bigger mass penalties than other methods and is worse for larger craft (higher terminal velocity). Especially for dense capsules not carrying big fuel tanks. I once did a simulink simulation about powered landing, the terminal velocity can be high without chutes and there are huge gravity losses necessitating a lot of fuel.
    Also a safety point… It could be useful for first stage recovery or suborbital craft though, since they’re not so mass-averse.

    A parawing would rule, maybe together with airbags or even landing gear. The parawing could be lighter than parachutes since you fly it to generate lift, I think there are automatic systems for those even currently operating in the military.

  8. meiza says:

    And how do you fit 7 people on a 3.6 diameter capsule?
    You can have 3 abreast at most, making it 2-2-3 or 1-3-3 from top. Very cramped, I say. I hope the transit time to ISS isn’t very long.

  9. Anonymous says:

    meiza,

    The soyuz has a diameter of just 2.26m, yet it is used by three persons.

    This one will have four persons in the first row and three persons in the second row, as can be clearly seen in the images. While it will be pretty cramped for seven persons, it should be quite comfortable for up to four persons.

    It is not designed for long duration missions. It is just a transfer vehicle. For a moon or mars mission you would just hook it up with a bigelow nautilus module and have plenty of space.

    regards,

    Rรผdiger Klaehn

  10. Ben Reytblat says:

    Hi, Jon,

    The “not sucking the air out of the room” point is great! I think it bodes well for the concerns I had a few weeks ago in the BFR/Merlin 2 thread. It certaily seems that Elon is operating under some version of the “Don’t be evil” manifesto. Or, as we had it at Quadrix, “Fundamental Rule 2” of sailboat racing.

    On a different, OT, note. The BFR/Merlin 2 discussion kept coming back to me, until I figured out what a very good payload for a BFR would be: bulk consumables. Particularly, propellants destined for an orbital logistics depot.

    This payload class neatly bypasses most of the concerns discussed in that thread:
    – it has a short development/manufacture lead time
    – there will not be enough of it in LEO until Lunar ISRU kicks in
    – it can easily live with 98% reliable booster.

    Hmmmm. Did I just out Elon’s “Cunning Plan To Dominate The World”(tm)? ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Big D says:

    Stupid question… if reentry is the same (Corona) as t/space, how do they deal with crew orientation?

    The pictures don’t seem to indicate reversible hammocks…

  12. Anonymous says:

    big d,

    I am quite confident that this thing does a base first reentry.

    I am not so sure about how much (if any) deceleration during landing is done by rocket engines. That round dome on top of the CBM hatch would have enough room for a large parachute.

  13. meiza says:

    ah, you are most right, it indeed has 4 people abreast in one row.

  14. Jon Goff says:

    Wow, too many comments too little sleep. If anyone knows where the volume nob is on little kids (or where the wind-down-and-go-to-sleep-it’s-1:30am-and-daddy-needs-to-be-at-the-shop-by-8:30 button is), please let me know.

    I just wanted to comment on a few of the comments:

    If Falcon I successfully flies, I’d hate to be a suborbital launch provider, or, even moreso, one of their investors. If it does, they’ll eventually make it to Falcon 5/9 and a capsule. Given the choice between $5-10 million per seat for some orbital time in a Dragon, or $100 thousand for five minutes playing with M&Ms on a parabolic trajectory, I know how I’d rather spend my money.
    Well, there’s a couple of issues here. First off, most people don’t have $5-10M burning a hole in their pocket. There will definitely be interest, and if they can get it down more toward the $5M range, I think they could make some decent cash. That said, suborbital will always be cheaper, and for most people it may be a choice between spending $X on a suborbital ride or not going into space at all. You also need to remember that by the time they’ve actually got this vehicle ready for space tourism (ie have flown a few flights), it’ll be well into 2010 or maybe 2011. By that time the average cost per suborbital ride (if suborbital tourism pans out at all) will likely be under $50k. Most of the first movers are charging a premium on early passengers, but planning on backing off the price later as more competition arrives.

    The other thing is that I’m not sure that SpaceX’s first mover advantage is neccessarily all that great. They’re taking a lot of risk, and making it a lot easier for someone to follow in their shoes. Their systems will eat BLoMart’s crap’s lunch if they can get the reliability good enough, but it’s nowhere near as reusable as it could/should be. I’d expect that Kistler’s vehicle, or a TSTO made by one of those suborbital guys (maybe us even if we make it that far) will eat SpaceX’s lunch, just due to being able to get higher flight rates.

    ~Jon

  15. Fred Kiesche says:

    “If anyone knows where the volume nob is on little kids (or where the wind-down-and-go-to-sleep-it’s-1:30am-and-daddy-needs-to-be-at-the-shop-by-8:30 button is), please let me know.”

    I’m still looking for that switch on my seven-year-old.

  16. ShimaKatase says:

    The Dragon will be lofted into orbit on a single-core Falcon 9. It occurred to me to wonder what you could do if you used the heavier variant F9-S9 instead. The F9-S9 has a listed payload of 24,750kg to LEO. Would that be enough to loft the Dragon, plus a Blok-DM-sized Earth Departure Stage to place the Dragon on a circumlunar free-return trajectory? From published numbers, I get 17.49t for a loaded Blok-DM-2M, and 7.25t for a Soyuz-TMA. The Dragon might be somewhat lighter than the Soyuz.

    A commercial ticket for 3-4 people round the Moon, with a system that compared with the Space Adventures DSE-Alpha scheme, is simpler, more comfortable and probably cheaper. Thoughts?

  17. Anonymous says:

    ShimaKatase,

    I thought of that possibility as well. I think you would not even need the block DM. The 9s9 has a GTO payload of 9650kg, which is a bit more than the 9 has to LEO. So it should have enough delta-V to put a dragon with four people on a free return lunar trajectory.

    Of course the heat shield would have to be beefed up.

  18. De Doc says:

    Jon: Dragon looks awful…CXV-ish. Anybody know whether there’s been behind-the-scenes cooperation between T/Space and SpaceX?

  19. Jon Goff says:

    De Doc,
    It’s more a case that both of them look awful Carona-ish. Carona capsules were used for returning I think it was film from spy cameras during the cold war. Lots of data on that particular reentry body shape. It’s not surprising that people try to reuse mold lines like that. Saves a lot of guess work.

    That said, many of the principles involved with t/Space are SpaceX’s direct competitors on the DARPA FALCON SLV, and I’ve been in the CXV mockup they had at Bigelow’s plant last summer. The insides really have nothing in common.

    But yeah, from the outside there definitely are similarities.

    ~Jon

  20. Anonymous says:

    Please stop stealing bandwidth from our website (Dragon image) , Jon.

    Keith Cowing SpaceRef.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Nice of you to mention where you grabbed the image, Jon.

    Keith Cowing

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