SpaceX Dragon capsule

First operational SpaceX Dragon capsule after successful orbital test flight on December 8, 2010.

The full impact of the successful launch of the SpaceX Dragon space capsule last month in an unmanned orbital test flight has yet to be fully felt. But what is clear is that America’s next orbital spaceship will be a space capsule, rather than a winged design. To be sure designs for winged manned ships are on the drawing board. However, none is even close to launch.

Dragon is first out of the gate, but two other capsules are in the running for taking over the Space Shuttle’s role as America’s spaceship. Will one emerge as the dominent vehicle, or will our national space program, for the first time, end up flying more than one orbital manned vehicle at once?

Let’s take a look at the options and see.

NASA/Lockheed Martin Orion

Orion was intended as part of NASA’s Constellation manned space exploration program. As such its intended vehicle has been the Ares 1, a solid booster rocket design derived from the Shuttle program. Combined development costs have totaled about $10 billion ($4.8 billion for Orion, the rest for Ares 1, all of it public money) and the system has yet to fly. With the cancellation of Constellation, Orion has been orphaned, without a launch vehicle. Orion is expected to carry 4 to 6 astronauts and has been called by former NASA administrator Mike Griffin “Apollo on steroids.” It may also be the last of the old breed of US government developed, owned, and operated spaceships. It’s not looking good for the success of this vehicle.

SpaceX Dragon

Dragon was designed from the beginning to be the cargo and crew carrier for the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which has successfully made two orbital flights. SpaceX says the capsule will eventually carry up to 7 astronauts and will be able to touch down to pinpoint landings on land with the aid of built-in booster rockets, a first for a capsule, if successful (the Russian Soyuz has braking rockets that fire just before touchdown but it has no steering ability). Combined development costs for Dragon/Falcon 9 have reached about $800 million, most of it private money. NASA has SpaceX under contract for cargo flights to the  International Space Station but it has not yet committed to crew flights. SpaceX plans to build that capability anyway, and once it does, it will seem like a no-brainer for NASA to buy crew flights as well.

Bigelow/Boeing CST-100

CST-100 is a bit of a gamble by Boeing to have some chips in game, no matter how NASA’s human space flight program shakes out. CST-100 is a joint program with Bigelow Aerospace (to service BA’s planned commercial space stations) and NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. It is expected to carry up to 7 seven astronauts. This ship has the least development and funding invested in it, working with about $18 million from NASA . That could change quickly because both Boeing and Bigelow Aerospace have the resources to ramp up development at any time. NASA won’t put significant money in as the whole point of the CCDev program is to foster independent commercial owner/operators rather than to build or finance development by itself. The CST-100 is being designed to fly on just about any launch vehicle large enough and powerful enough, including the Falcon 9 and Boeing’s Delta-IV.

My money is on Dragon carrying astronauts to orbit before Orion even gets off the ground. At that point it will seem even more silly for NASA to keep investing in Orion, or to continuing its practice of buying rides on Soyuz capsules in the absence of the Shuttle (which retires this year). Not that Dragon’s success will stop the politicians responsible for NASA’s funding from continuing to insist on silliness. Regardless, barring any unforseeables, Dragon will become, de facto, America’s national spaceship, probably by 2015.

With Dragon flying regularly on NASA-chartered flights, thus demonstrating a viable market, Boeing will get more fully behind the CST-100, ramping up development and production. By then Bigelow space stations should be operational, expanding the market for orbital ships further, and sparking more investment from other players. Bigelow is the biggest wildcard here. Will Robert Bigelow wait and see what happens with Dragon before committing more resources to CST-100, or is he, even now, pushing Boeing to move ahead to ensure reliable transportation to his space stations?