Lockheed Martin and Bigelow Aerospace have entered into a deal to move towards the use of the Atlas V for private manned space flight, NASASpaceFlight.com has exclusively learned.
A formal agreement between the two companies to study Atlas V feasibility for space tourism - including up to 16 launches a year - will be announced shortly. The initiative could radically transform both the "New Space" and traditional launch marketplace.
The two companies have agreed to begin a phase of technical and business model studies, after which the companies will decide whether to proceed with a man-rated Atlas V program.
Initially, and due to the huge amount of money involved, the companies will announce they are to focus on exploring the technical requirements for the human-rated launch services needed to transport commercial crew and cargo to expandable orbital space complexes. Bigelow and Lockheed Martin will examine the production and supply of Atlas rockets and comprehensive data describing flight safety and performance. Potential business models and business plans will also be discussed.
The companies expect an Atlas V 401 single-core configuration to be the most likely launch vehicle. Lockheed Martin literature and graphics, obtained by NASASpaceFlight.com, portray a wide, 8-person capsule atop a combined abort and orbital maneuvering system in an Atlas V 401 stack. The passenger vehicle itself could change to a different design.
Up to 16 manned Atlas V 401s per year are anticipated. Current Atlas V family launch rates are closer to two to four launches per year. If realized, this increased launch volume could drastically decrease the Atlas V per-launch costs, and significantly change the US launch market.
New Space Meets Old Space?
The move signals that Lockheed is seriously considering entering the fray to get a chunk of the emerging space tourism market. With the exception of Soyuz, the potentially large orbital tourism market has primarily been the domain of small 'New Space' company business plans.
Companies such as Rocketplane Kistler, SpaceX, and tSpace are attempting to achieve flight costs an order-of-magnitude cheaper than existing vehicles, but only a high-volume space tourism market could supply the quantity of launches required.
A man-rated Atlas V could mean that, if one of these small companies get to orbit, they still face future competition from the more established Lockheed - with its existing infrastructure, proven reliability, and an existing customer base.
'As the builder and launcher of one of the most reliable launch vehicles in the world, we believe the Atlas V is a good choice to help usher in the new era of orbital commercial human spaceflight.' said Lockheed's George Sowers, Atlas Business Development and Advanced Programs Director.
'We are excited to be looking at a potential new role for Atlas in the developing market of space tourism and research.'
Bigelow Changes Course
Bigelow Aerospace plans to build an orbiting hotel from inflatable modules for space tourists. The company is interested in Lockheed Martin's Atlas V to provide human and cargo transportation to their planned space station. A prototype inflatable module, the Genesis I, was successfully orbited from a Russian Dnepr rocket in July, as the company looks to revolutionize the space tourism market.
'We need to encourage creativity, imagination, and innovation, in order to bring the benefits of space development to fruition, not just for the privileged few, but for all of humanity,' said company founder and president Robert T. Bigelow, in relation to this agreement.
Bigelow has relied on other companies to independently develop the human launch capabilities it needs to provide tourists a ride to its planned space station. Bigelow has an established relationship with SpaceX, for example, including a planned unmanned Falcon 9 launch scheduled for late 2008.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk recently stated that the two companies are in an 'ongoing dialog' to ensure Falcon 9 meets Bigelow's human transportation needs.
Until now Bigelow has remained non-committal, seemingly content to allow the market, or perhaps NASA COTS, to evolve the manned capability. The company established America's Space Prize in 2004 - a $50 million reward for a company to orbit a five person manned spacecraft capable to spur the market along.
However, in August, Bigelow made an ambiguous announcement proclaiming that they had 'made several bold decisions' and were accelerating their plans due to several factors. The company promised a big announcement for early 2007 - after the launch of their second prototype module. This bold partnership with Lockheed seems likely to play a role in Bigelow's sudden change of course, but the exact relationship is unclear.
Man Rating the Atlas V
NASA considered and rejected the use of Atlas V as a Space Shuttle replacement for human space flight during their Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) last year. The ESAS stated that it deemed both Boeing Delta IV and Atlas V development options as 'high risk' for an on-time 2011 operational capability to meet CEV mass requirements.
NASA instead chose to transition it's existing Shuttle workforce to create the new Ares I for crew launch using Shuttle derived hardware. While NASA has received criticism in the EELV community for this decision, it is important to note that the Lockheed/Bigelow capsule appears to have significantly less mass than the lunar bound CEV.
However, other human-rating factors cited by the ESAS in the rejection of Atlas V hardware do not seem to be a concern to the new partnership. Lockheed seems publicly confident that the vehicle can be man-rated, stating: 'Human passenger requirements [are] readily addressable with minor modifications for additional system redundancy, vehicle health monitoring, facilities, and crew safety,' and citing a compliance to a 1.4 factor of safety for all primary structures.
The reason for the NASA ESAS man-rating concerns was due to the 25mT CEV mass requirement, which ESAS maintained could not safely even be met by the massive Atlas V Heavy variant. According to a Lockheed Martin paper unveiled this week at the Space 2006 conference, the basic Atlas V 401 can meet FAA and NASA man-rating requirements with little modification with a much smaller capsule mass of 20,000 lbs.
At 20,000 lbs, there is enough margin in the Atlas V 401's flight envelope to allow the crew to safely abort at any time during launch, closing all unsafe 'black-zones'. Also, at 20,000 lbs structural loads on the vehicle are decreased enough so that a detailed Lockheed analysis indicates that all primary structures meet NASA 1.4 Factor of Safety margins.
Analysis also shows the Russian-built RD-180 engine in this regime revealed only one component that fell a hair below the 1.4 margin, at a 1.38 Factor of Safety.
The paper, entitled 'Atlas V for Commercial Passenger Transportation', is being presented this week at the Space 2006 conference (the draft paper was obtained by this site on L2 several weeks ago.
The paper emphasises 'maximizing the synergy' between capsule and launch vehicle requirements, and clearly begs the question as to why NASA stuck with such strict CEV and Lunar mission requirements before launch vehicle selection, resulting in the multi-billion dollar Ares I development effort.
Several other Lockheed papers being unveiled this week at Space 2006 further detail the company's plans, including one entitled 'A Space Access Architecture Supporting Large Scale Space Tourism', and 'Commercial Launch Services: an Enabler for Launch Vehicle Evolution and Cost Reduction'.
Lockheed further pushes its vision of Lunar exploration with more flexible launch requirements with 'An Alternate Approach to Lunar Missions - Human Sorties at Half the Price', and cements its vision of more flexible vehicle requirements for moon exploration through on-orbit refueling with a paper on cryogenic propellant transfer.
With the deal announced today, these papers become tangible future possibilities rather than hypothetical analyses, and portrays Lockheed Martin's full-on approach to moving the Atlas V into the manned space flight program, returning to their deep involvement pre-Apollo.
Drastic NASA COTS Implication
Meanwhile, the NASA COTS program is attempting to foster drastically lower cost ISS resupply and crew rotation missions with the granting of $500 million to the two 'New Space' companies SpaceX and Rocketplane-Kistler. These companies are being asked to find significant private funding to supplement the NASA COTS award, with the vague assurance that if they succeed in flying safe manned vehicles that they would then be eligible to bid on competitive ISS resupply contracts.
Again, the Lockheed Martin/Bigelow agreement could drastically change the ISS resupply equation. A man-capable Atlas V with capsule and docking hardware could threaten direct competition with any successful COTS winner on competitive ISS crew rotation contracts.