Orbital’s commercial crew interest isn’t new

Orbital space taxi concepts

Left: An illustration from the early 2000s of an Orbital Sciences space taxi concept launching atop a Delta 4 Heavy. Right: Orbital's new concept for a commercial crew vehicle visiting the ISS.

Orbital Sciences got a lot of attention earlier this month when it announced it had submitted a proposal to NASA for its Commercial Crew Development 2 (CCDev-2) program, seeking funding to refine its proposed crew transportation system concept. That concept features a “blended lifting body” vehicle placed atop a launch vehicle such as an Atlas 5; the vehicle would glide back to a runway landing. The theme of much of the coverage was that Orbital was the latest company throwing its hat into the CCDev ring, following others such as Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX, and United Launch Alliance.

However, Orbital’s interest in commercial crew transportation predates this proposal by more than a decade. In the early 2000s Orbital worked on the Orbital Space Plane (OSP) program for NASA, fleshing out a design for a winged vehicle launched on an EELV. Before that, back in the late 1990s, Orbital studied a concept it called the “Space Taxi” that was similar to its current concept, at least in the concept of operations: a small winged vehicle launched on another rocket to transport cargo or crew to the ISS before returning to a runway landing. The Space Taxi work was also supported by NASA under the Space Transportation Architecture Studies (STAS) program.

Here’s how Orbital’s chief technology officer put it in testimony before the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee (.doc format) back in October 1999:

Orbital’s recommended architecture includes a small, multifunctional Crew and Cargo Transfer Vehicle (CCTV), referred to as a Space Taxi™, which would serve as: a two-way human space transportation system, a small cargo delivery and return vehicle, an emergency crew return vehicle (CRV) for the International Space Station (ISS), and a passenger module for a future Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV). The Space Taxi could initially be launched on a heavy-lift Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), currently under development by U.S. industry and the U.S. Air Force. Together with a small cargo carrier located behind the Space Taxi, this system would be used to meet future ISS servicing requirements.

The Orbital testimony makes the case that, once the station is complete, a vehicle like the Space Taxi can meet NASA’s needs to service the station, rendering the Space Shuttle unnecessary. This is, in effect, what has happened: in 2004 the Bush Administration rolled out the Vision for Space Exploration, calling for completion of the ISS by 2010 followed by retirement of the shuttle (that deadline will be missed, though, with three more shuttle missions still on the books for 2011.)

Orbital’s CTO argues that, at that time, there’s no commercial demand for such a system: “Unfortunately, there are no near-term commercial requirements for transporting humans to and from space or for returning significant amounts of cargo.” However, he argues that the Space Taxi system should be commercially operated, allowing it to meet any emerging commercial markets on the ISS or elsewhere in LEO (emphasis in original):

We envision this Space Taxi to be industry owned and operated; however, the cost of development, production, and operation of the Space Taxi System would be paid for predominantly out of government funds because it satisfies unique NASA needs that are not currently aligned with those of commercial industry. The launching of this Space Taxi System, however, could be competed among commercial RLV or EELV suppliers that meet the cost and safety requirements. These future RLVs would be commercially developed with private capital and would be commercially owned and operated. Their development will be enabled by NASA’s current and planned future investments in RLV technologies and could be enhanced by government-backed financial incentives, such as tax credits, loan guarantees or advanced purchase agreements. Once a truly commercial Space Station becomes operational or the current Space Station becomes sufficiently commercialized, NASA and industry launch needs will be in almost complete alignment, and a completely commercial Space Taxi may become a viable business opportunity. We strongly believe that industry ownership of the Space Taxi from initial operation is critical to enable the eventual development of such a commercial Space Station.

Sound familiar? Orbital’s CTO goes on suggest that such a system could open up one market in particular, satellite servicing. He also argues that such a system is necessary from both a technical and budgetary standpoint to enable human space exploration beyond Earth orbit. “Orbital is currently defining propulsion modules that would be attached to the aft end of the Space Taxi to allow it to perform these potential future missions,” he states. “We believe that the savings in NASA’s budget generated by the introduction of Orbital’s Space Taxi-based architecture are critical to enable the funding of such a program in the current budgetary environment.” (emphasis in original)

By the way, who was the Orbital CTO who made those comments back in October 1999? A gentleman by the name of Michael Griffin.

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