t/Space Offers an Option for Closing Shuttle, CEV Gap

TransformationalSpace Corp. (t/Space), a company founded in response to the new U.S. vision forspace exploration, thinks it can help NASA close the gap between retiring thespace shuttle fleet and fielding a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) to carryastronauts beyond Earth's orbit.

TheReston, Va.-based company already alreadyconvinced NASA to give it $6 million in exchange for advice on how the U.S. spaceagency can reach beyond the traditional aerospace industry to answer apresidential call to return to the Moon by 2020. Now t/Space is hoping toconvince NASA to part with $400 million in exchange for an Earth-to-orbit crewtransfer vehicle, which company executives say they can have ready in 2008.

NASA'scurrent plan calls for retiring the space shuttle by the end of 2010 and flyingthe CEV with humans on board for the first time in 2014. However, NASA's newadministrator, Mike Griffin, has called the potential four-year gap betweenshuttle and CEV unacceptable and vowed to take steps to close or at leastminimize it.

Thet/Space team thinks it can help NASA avoid a gap altogether and wants a chanceto prove it. The t/Space team insists that is no hollow promise, and points tothe quality of the people on their team, which includes famed aircraft designerBurt Rutan, who made history in 2004 as the builderof the first privately financed piloted spacecraft, and Brett Alexander, aformer official with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policywho helped shape the development of the new vision President George W. Bush gaveNASA last year for future exploration.

TransformationalSpace is the brainchild of serial space entrepreneurs David Gump and GaryHudson, who respectively serve as the company's president and chief designer.The pair started the company in early 2004 to respond to a NASA call for ideason how it might go about returning to the Moon in preparation for humanmissions to Mars and beyond.

InSeptember, NASA awarded t/Space and seven other companiessix-month contracts to develop comprehensive plans for renewed human lunarexploration, including development of the CEV. NASA recently awarded t/Space a$3 million, six-month extension that will keep the company busy until thisSeptember. Between now and then, t/Space would like to see NASA structure acompetition that would allow companies to bid for a fix-priced contract todesign and build an Earth-to-orbit crew transfer system that can be readybefore the CEV.

Underthe t/Space plan, teams led by Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman would stillbuild the CEV, but the vehicle would be designed solely to transport astronautsbetween Earth orbit and the Moon. The job of getting astronauts up to theirMoon-bound CEV would fall to t/Space and an air-launched four-person capsulethey have dubbed the Crew Transfer Vehicle, or CXV. The projected recurringcost of the service is $20 million per flight.

Alexander,hired earlier this year as t/Space's vice president of government relations,said that the overall lunar exploration approach, or architecture, that t/Spacehas been studying under its $6 million Concept Exploration and Refinementcontract, envisions a reusable CEV that stays in space, thus avoiding thecomplication of designing a re-entry system, and launches unmanned, thus savingthe expense of human rating an Atlas 5, Delta 4 or other powerful launcher.

"Weunderstand NASA is not buying the entire architecture at this point,"Alexander said. "What we are interested in talking to them about is thecrew transfer vehicle, just the Earth-to-orbit piece of it. We arecomplimentary to any CEV that gets developed. We can put people into orbit,whether it's the Lockheed Martin version or the Boeing-Northrop version,whatever it is, they can launch it unmanned and they don't have to human ratean [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle]."

Thereis at least some interest from CEV contender Lockheed Martin in the t/Spaceapproach. Cleon Lacefield,Lockheed Martin vice president and CEV program manager, said in a May 3interview they have a cooperative relationship with t/Space and are poised totake advantage of the CXV system should it come to pass.

TheCXV, Gump and Alexander said, also could be used to ferry four to sixastronauts to and from the international space station and serve as a crewlifeboat, solving one of NASA's looming problems without compromising the CEV's lunar transport mission.

TheCXV, as t/Space envisions it, would be a crewed capsule that derives its shapenot from NASA's Mercury, Gemini or Apollo capsules, but from the first U.S. spysatellite program, Discover/Corona, which relied on washtub-sized ballisticcapsules to return exposed film to Earth for processing. Alexander said theDiscover/Corona capsule design racked up more than 400 re-entries over twodecades of use.

Thestructure of the CXV capsule would be designed and built by Rutan'sScaled Composites, the Mojave, Calif.-based companythat designed and built SpaceShipOne, the world'sfirst private-financed piloted spacecraft, for roughly $25 million.

TheCXV would be attached to its booster and carried aloft under the belly of alarge carrier aircraft to an altitude of 7,600 meters for release and launch -an approach t/Space thinks has significant safety advantages over a pad launchin the event of a booster failure.

"Youare up high enough where you can separate and parachute down under almost anycircumstance," Gump said. "Whereas with an abort on the pad you havea split second to release a lot of energy, hopefully in the right direction, toget you up high enough for the chutes to deploy. It's much morechallenging."

TheCXV would be designed to make a parachute landing into the water and berecovered for reuse, according to Gump, "with minimal refurbishment."

TheCXV booster would be a more powerful version of the QuickReachbooster that t/Space teammate AirLaunch LLC isdeveloping for the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research ProjectsAgency's under its operationally responsive spaceliftprogram.

"Wethink we are credible as a quicker-paced alternative in part because there ishardware already being constructed by Air Launch under the DARPA/Air ForceFalcon contract," Gump said.

AirLaunch, a Reno,Nev.-based company founded by t/Space chief designer Hudson, has been undercontract to DARPA and the Air Force since 2003, developing a liquid oxygen andpropane-fueled air-launched booster designed to deliver 900 kilograms ofpayload to an altitude of 200 kilometers.

AirLaunch currently hasa $13 million contract and is competing against New Orleans-based LockheedMartin Michoud Operations, Microcosm and SpaceExploration Technologies, both of El Segundo, Calif., foradditional Pentagon funding this fall that would allow it to proceed to aplanned 2007 demonstration of its low-cost launch system.

Humanrating a more powerful version of QuickReach booster,Gump said, would be much less expensive than humanrating an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle.

"It'sa very simple system and because it is so inexpensive it can be tested alot," Gump said. "The problem with man rating $150 million [EvolvedExpendable Launch Vehicles] is after they are modified, how many test flightsare you going to be able to pay for?"

Alexander,who worked as a senior policy analyst on space issues in the White House Officeof Science and Technology Policy until January, said the estimated cost ofhuman rating an Atlas 5 or Delta 4 is about $1 billion.

IfNASA has any qualms about putting astronaut safety in the hands of a mavericklike Rutan, Gump and Alexander said the agency neednot worry. For starters, no one has ever died flying any of Rutan'senvelope-pushing vehicles, and the CXV's first crewmembers will be t/Space employees not NASA astronauts.

"Weare planning to operate this with t/Space crew before allowing a NASA crew tolaunch," Alexander said. "That has always been part of the plan. Weare not going to fly it until we think it is safe."

Thet/Space team thinks it can build the CXV, develop a more powerful version ofthe QuickReach booster, modify a 747 and conduct atest program that included the first piloted space shot for $400 million - asum, Gump and Alexander said, NASA can easily afford.

NASA'sassociate administrator for exploration systems, Craig Steidle,has talked publicly about funding in parallel to the main CEV effort aso-called nontraditional approach intended to yield a limited Earth-to-orbithuman transport system as early as the end of 2008.

Thet/Space team would like to see NASA follow through with the non-traditionalapproach and structure a competition for a fixed-price contract that wouldreward companies for delivering hardware, not view graphs and status reports.

NASA'sCEV acquisition plans, however, have been less clear since Griffin started talking about acceleratingthe program. Gump and Alexander said even if NASA takes steps to speed up thedevelopment of CEV, t/Space still has a valuable role to play.

"Theonly way you get money to speed things up is by doing the downselecta lot sooner," Gump said. "If you do it a lot sooner you have a muchshorter period of competition between the two majors. But with thenontraditional approach, you will have an actual hardware development goingforward in competition with the remaining major prime. I think that's ofextreme value to NASA, to have sustained competition if they have to do anearly downselect."

Gumpand Alexander also were very clear that they want NASA, not the capitalmarkets, to fund the development. Gump said putting together a business planand raising capital could take a couple of years and significantly drive up theultimate price of the service to NASA once a competitive return for investorsis taken into account.

Butnot everybody who would like to sell crew and cargo services to NASA agreesthat private capital would do more harm than good. A senior official with onecompany that has been studying CEV concepts for NASA said the agency ought topromise to buy services that meet its specifications and then let the marketdecide which company has what it takes to win that business.

Ifthe CXV approach pans out by the end of this decade, NASA can focus its CEVdevelopment funds on a system optimized for travel between Earth orbit and thesurface of the Moon.

"Onething NASA should be cautious about right now is repeating the mistake it madewith the shuttle in trying to be all things to all people. With the new desireto speed up the CEV so that it is both a lunar vehicle and anEarth-to-orbit-service-the-space-station vehicle, they're walking a slipperyslope," Gump said. "We provide a safety valve. We are focused ondoing one thing - getting from the surface to [low-Earth orbit] in a way thatis safe and cost effective."

t/Space has the weight of a presidentialcommission on their side. The Moon, Mars and Beyond Commission, headed byformer U.S. Air Force Secretary Edward "Pete" Aldridge, reported backto Bush last year that private industry must have a "far larger presencein space operations with the specific goal of allowing private industry toassume the primary role of providing services to NASA, and most immediately inaccessing low-Earth orbit."

"Thereis an alignment now of the president's policy, the direction of the Aldridgecommission, a willingness on NASA's part and a recognition by Congress that weare not going to get there with business as usual," Alexander said."It really is a historic moment."

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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and SpaceNews.com. He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.