Space: Soyuz Sunset

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September 11, 2019: Despite delays in final testing of two new American manned space vehicles, in late August the European Space Agency (ESA) informed Russia that they would no longer be using Russian Soyuz rockets to send ESA personnel to the International Space Station (ISS). Two American systems (Dragon 2 and Starliner) are expected to complete test flights and be available by early 2020. The last ESA use of Soyuz for ISS staff transport was in July. The ESA decision came despite an April test of Dragon 2 in which one of the new SuperDraco engines exploded during a ground test of these engines installed in a Dragon 2 capsule. Within three months the cause (a faulty valve) had been identified, verified and addressed. A new component will replace the valve and another test, plus a flight test is still possible by the end of 2019. That would have the flight test at least three months later than originally planned prior to the April test failure. The other American manned space vehicle, the Starliner, also encountered some testing delays but is expected to conduct unmanned and manned flight tests by early 2020.

All this new spaceflight development was the result of commercial firms, like SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) rapidly developing more effective rockets and satellite launchers. SpaceX was founded in 2002 with the goal of breaking into a market controlled by long-time suppliers. By 2002 these veteran firms had formed a legal cartel that monopolized satellite launch services for the U.S. government. After 2006 all this business was to have gone to a government-approved monopoly called the ULA (United Launch Alliance) which is composed of Lockheed Martin (using Atlas 5 rockets) and Boeing (Delta 4). These two firms have dominated U.S. space launches for over half a century and in 2006 they monopolized it. But not for long, as the future arrived unexpectedly.

In 2012 SpaceX obtained its first contract to launch U.S. military cargo into space. SpaceX had earlier obtained a NASA contract which included 12 deliveries to the International Space Station (at $134 million each). What made all this so noteworthy is that SpaceX is the first privately owned space transportation company. SpaceX developed its own launch rockets without any government help. SpaceX also developed the Dragon space vehicle, for delivering personnel and supplies to the International Space Station.

SpaceX has since proved that its rockets work and is proving that the SpaceX rockets can really do the job cheaper. Moreover, ULA was receiving billion dollar a year subsidies from the government that SpaceX did not require. SpaceX still had to get all the paperwork and approvals done so they could handle classified missions. For SpaceX that was not a problem as they were already prepared to spend a year or so to satisfy all the bureaucrats and regulations.

This all got started because the U.S. was desperate for some innovation in space flight technology and offered to do business with private space flight firms if the new companies could demonstrate their approach worked. Several such firms were formed after 2000 to provide new tech and there have been a growing number of successes. One of those was a new space engine (SuperDraco) for manned orbital spacecraft that will enable the craft to land or dock with greater ease and accuracy, and also provide an escape option for personnel on a launcher that runs into trouble before reaching orbit.

SuperDraco is a variant on the Draco engines that already power the SpaceX launcher capsule during reentry after trips to the ISS or some other orbital mission. SuperDraco uses a storable liquid fuel which enables it to more effectively be turned on and off while on a space mission. SuperDraco development had proceeded without much incident until the April 2019 mishap. Yet such catastrophic flaws had to be planned for and handled effectively. What made SuperDraco more capable, reliable and cheaper was the use of 3-D printers to build engine components out of high-tech alloys. SpaceX was quick to adopt industrial-grade 3-D printers that produce metal objects and use them for creating prototype and production parts. Since these rocket engines are not produced in large quantities, the higher expense of using a 3-D printer is not a factor. SuperDraco is considered the first of a new generation of space flight equipment created using 3-D printers and silicon prototyping (using high res computer models to design and test new designs before building and testing a full scale one). That rapid design and fabrication made it possible to quickly develop and manufacture new components to replace those that had failed during testing.

Within a decade of its founding, SpaceX managed to break the decades-old cartel controlling U.S. government satellite launch services. Lockheed Martin had been getting a lot more launch business because the Russian RD-180 engine of the Atlas 5 was a more attractive (in terms of performance and price) option than the rival Delta 4. Unfortunately because of the 2014 Russian misbehavior in Ukraine and American threats the Russians canceled the RD-180 deal. SpaceX stepped up and said it would have an Atlas 5 replacement ready in a few years. This led the Russians to reconsider their RD-180 threats. But even resuming RD-180 shipments did not stop SpaceX.

This SpaceX pledge was not an idle boast. Dragon made its first cargo delivery to the ISS in 2012 and has since made 17 successful deliveries, including one that carried live animals (mice) for ISS experiments and multiple reuses of Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX quickly proved that its rockets worked and demonstrated repeatedly that SpaceX rockets could do the job cheaper. For example, a ULA rocket launch that cost $420 million could be done by SpaceX for $90 million. ULA quickly became a lot more efficient and less expensive. But not quickly enough because SpaceX kept developing and putting into use cheaper and more effective technologies.

By 2018 it was clear that the ULA monopoly was gone for good and the ULA cartel resigned itself to continued downsizing and efforts to duplicate SpaceX technologies in an effort to stay in business. Even the Russians reluctantly admitted that the SpaceX reusable rockets, which repeatedly returned to earth and landed intact under their own power, had fundamentally changed the launcher business. The ULA, as well as European and Chinese space launcher operations,  had to adapt to avoid losing all their commercial (and some of their military) business.

What gave Russia its monopoly was the 2011 U.S. Space Shuttle retirement. After that last 2011 shuttle flight Russia found it had a monopoly on delivering personnel and cargo to the ISS. So Russia raised its prices for a trip to the ISS 20 percent, to $63 million per person (including 50 kg/110 pounds of accompanying baggage). That's quite a bit more than what it cost to send someone up via the U.S. Space Shuttle. Although mainly a cargo vehicle, for carrying stuff into orbit at a cost of about $25 million a ton, the Shuttle also carried six crew or passengers, in addition to the flight crew of two. For the moment, Russia is the only country with the capability to get people up to the ISS and back. The Russian Soyuz delivery module monopoly was not expected to last long. That was because the Space Shuttle was 56 meters long, weighed 2,000 tons and had a payload of 24 tons. All its proposed replacements are smaller and much cheaper.

For example, in 2011 Japan launched its second Kounotori (White Stork) HTV orbital delivery vehicle. Carried into LEO (low earth orbit of about 400 kilometers up) by a Japanese H-IIB launcher, the HTV carried 5.3 tons of supplies to the ISS. Japan was one of several nations building cargo and passenger vehicles to help keep the ISS staffed and supplied. The January HTV trip had the vehicle docked to the ISS for two months so that it could be used for some experiments. Then the HTV was be filled with discarded material from the ISS, and launched towards earth, to burn up on reentry. Japan considered upgrading the HTV to carry personnel and be able to return like the Russian Soyuz space vehicles, with people, and be reused after refurbishment but that did not happen. The 10.5 ton cylindrical HTV is 10 meters (31 feet) long and four meters in diameter. It is equipped with maneuvering rockets, plus a guidance system and communications gear. Max carrying capacity is six tons.

The ESA developed the unmanned ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) spacecraft for supplying the ISS. The ATV hoped to completely replace the existing Russian Soyuz and Progress systems, especially if ESA and Russia could work out a cooperation deal. The Progress is actually a variant of the Soyuz, and both weigh about seven tons. These two space vehicles are used one time only and were designed in the 1960s. The Progress can deliver 2.7 tons of cargo.

The ATV is a 20 ton vehicle, which could carry 8 tons of cargo. The ATV had its first flight in 2008, and the second one went up in early 2011. A joint Russian/ESA ATV would do the same work as the smaller, and older, Russian Progress vehicle. But the initial ATV was not equipped to return material from space (where it will mainly be used to supply the International Space Station.) A reusable ATV would cost about a billion dollars to design, and one that could carry passengers, a few billion more. So the ATV was abandoned,

In 2011 Boeing was developing a reusable capsule, the 25 ton Orion that could carry up to six personnel, or up to 3.5 tons of cargo (six tons in a special cargo version). The Orion can land, via parachute and airbags, anywhere, and be refurbished for up to ten trips. However, the Orion would not be ready for use until 2015 and before that happened the developer, Boeing, switched a smaller and more efficient design; the Starliner. Actually work on Starliner began in 2010 but it was soon recognized as a superior design to Orion.

The Orion was based on the American Apollo space capsule of the 1960s, which was a contemporary of the Soyuz. In 2011 Orion was seen as the most likely to provide competition, despite there being other efforts underway, including the SpaceX Dragon. The Dragon development was completed faster than anyone expected, with its first flight in 2010 and first actual use in 2012. Dragon weighs 4.2 tons empty and can carry up to six tons of cargo to the ISS and return up to 3.5 tons. Dragon 2 weighs 9.2 tons empty and can carry up to six tons (including seven passengers) to the ISS and return with three tons.

Dragon cost a lot less than what Soyuz in 2011 and once passenger-carrying Dragon 2 gets into regular service Soyuz will have a lot less work. In 2011 Russia was building two Soyuz and four Progress capsules a year. For the 4-5 year period when there is no Shuttle or other competition, Russia planned to build four Soyuz and seven Progress capsules a year.

 


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