We have a space station in permanent orbit ... but not a lot of rockets that can get there. On the assumption that the free market can blast us to the ISS on the cheap, NASA has awarded resupply contracts to two private companies, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX. But the two space ferries have some key differences, and the competition between them is shaping up to be a dogfight between reliable spaceships of the past and slick ones from the future. Here's how they line up.
Orbital produces the Toyota Tacoma of the thermosphere—solid, reliable transport. The first-stage engines are stockpiled Soviet NK-33s from the early 1970s. And fuel-wise, the Antares is a sensible liquid-solid hybrid—mechanically simpler than a pure liquid-fuel craft but with more punch than a solid-fuel rocket. Also, both the Cygnus and the Antares immolate in the atmosphere on the way down, which means Orbital avoids the headaches of reentry, like heat shields and splashdown prep. And no people on board means no cumbersome life-support systems. Orbital will get $43, 000 per pound from NASA—$1.9 billion for eight deliveries to the ISS—and a demo resupply mission is scheduled to dock with the ISS in mid-September. It's no frills and no drama—getting to the ISS is the only point.
Capsule Height: 32.5 feet
Rocket Height: 131.2 feet
Cargo Mass (going up): 4, 409 lbs.
Cargo Mass (going down—in the form of trash to be incinerated in the atmosphere on the way back): 4, 409 lbs.
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NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services: A New Era in Spaceflight - History of International Space Station (ISS) Cargo and Crew, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Bigelow
eBooks (Progressive Management)