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Russia's Space Woes Stress NASA's Need for Private Spaceships

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The recent delay of the next manned launch to the International Space Station due to a damaged Russian space capsule highlights NASA's critical need for commercially built vehicles, space policy experts say.

The Russian Soyuz spacecraft was originally scheduled to launch to the orbiting outpost on March 29, but the capsule was damaged in a botched pressure test and is unusable for the upcoming flight. Instead, Russia is preparing the next spaceship on the line, which means the liftoff will occur no earlier than May 15, NASA's space station program manager Mike Suffredini announced Thursday (Feb. 2).

Since the retirement of NASA's space shuttle program last summer, the space agency is now completely reliant on Russian spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the orbiting laboratory. In the meantime, several commercial companies are building a new fleet of private spaceships to fill the gap left by the mothballed orbiters.

But these transportation services will not be available until at least 2017, NASA officials have said.

Facing an uncertain budget climate, NASA has also changed its approach to funding the private development of these commercial spacecraft under the space agency's Commercial Crew Development program, which could push back the start of U.S. commercial flights to and from low-Earth orbit.


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In similar news
http://www.spacex.com/updates.php
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“SuperDraco engines represent the best of cutting edge technology,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Chief Technology Officer. “These engines will power a revolutionary launch escape system that will make Dragon the safest spacecraft in history and enable it to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.”

The SuperDraco is an advanced version of the Draco engines currently used by SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft to maneuver on orbit and during reentry. As part of SpaceX’s state-of-the-art launch escape system, eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the Dragon spacecraft will produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program awarded SpaceX $75 million in April of last year to begin work developing the escape system in order to prepare the Dragon spacecraft to carry astronauts. Less than nine months later, SpaceX engineers have designed, built and tested the engine.

In a series of recent tests conducted at the company’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas, the SuperDraco sustained full duration, full thrust firing as well as a series of deep throttling demonstrations.

SpaceX’s launch escape system has many advantages over past systems. It is inherently safer because it is not jettisoned like all other
escape systems. This distinction provides astronauts with the unprecedented ability to escape from danger at any point during the launch,
not just in the first few minutes. The eight SuperDracos provide redundancy, so that even if one engine fails an escape can still be carried
out successfully.

SuperDracos can also be restarted multiple times if necessary and the engines will have the ability to deep throttle, providing astronauts with precise control and enormous power. In addition, as a part of a recoverable Dragon spacecraft, the engines can be used repeatedly, helping to advance SpaceX’s long-term goal of making spacecraft more like airplanes, which can be flown again and again with minimal maintenance between flights.

SuperDraco engines will provide the Dragon spacecraft with the capability to perform on target propulsive landings
anywhere in the solar system. Credit: SpaceX

SuperDraco engines will power a revolutionary launch escape system that will make SpaceX’s Dragon the safest spacecraft
in the world. Eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the Dragon spacecraft will produce up to 120,000 pounds
of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch. Credit: SpaceX