United Launch Alliance, CST-100, MPCV
The United Launch Alliance is a partnership of multiple American companies producing (1) rockets and/or (2) manned capsules. It is largely a response to the retirement of the Space Shuttle (planned at the time), which leaves America with no human launch capability, whereby NASA has subsidized the most promising alternative human launch systems in a diversified way. One of the ideas of the United Launch Alliance is that once company's rocket can launch another company's manned capsule, interchangably.
The core of the United Launch Alliance is the old giants Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.
The leading rocket is the Atlas V, a heavy launcher which has shown almost flawless reliability since 2002, with 30 launch successes as of the time of this writing in May 2012, and no launch failures (though one satellite was put into a lower orbit, albeit operationally). To date it has never launched a human, which is now being man rated under funding by NASA.
The Atlas V was originally developed by Lockheed-Martin, using a Russian built engine for the first stage, under contract with a Russian company to provide 101 engines over time for exactly $ 1 billion, and an American built Centaur upper stage (Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne).
In 2006, Lockheed-Martin started to look into man rating the rocket for human launch. Boeing and Bigelow Aerospace were also discussing the potential private sector launching of people.
Late in 2006, Lockheed-Martin and Boeing started a joint venture called the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for providing services to the US government, mainly NASA and the Defense Department, also using Boeing's Delta II and Delta IV launchers, not just human launch.
Boeing and Bigelow Aerospace have been developing the Crew Space Transport CST-100 as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, which looks a lot like the Apollo capsule but holds 7 people.
Lockheed-Martin has been developing the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) for human deep space missions, for sending a crew of 4 to the Moon or to a Near Earth Object (NEO) or Asteroid (NEA), or Mars, and as a backup crew and cargo vehicle for the International Space Station. (The MPCV is a descendant of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) of the cancelled NASA Constellation Program.)
The Lockheed-Martin MPCV is scheduled for its first unmanned test flight in 2013, launched on a Boeing Delta IV rocket, a heavy lift version. This is a bit puzzling since the Orion is stated as a 25 ton spacecraft.
The 13 ton Boeing CST-100 is planned for a first test flight in early 2015, followed by a test of the abort safety system in mid-2015, and hopefully a human launch in late 2015. The CST-100 is being designed for launch by multiple vehicles, including the Atlas V, Delta IV, and Falcon 9.
The Atlas V is listed as able to launch up to 29 tons to inclined low Earth orbit, whereas the Delta IV is listed as capable of launching 13 tons likewise and 9 tons to Earth escape. There are plans for the United Launch Alliance to increase launch capacity to low Earth orbit to 70 tons by upgrading the Atlas V, or possibly 100 tons by upgrading the Delta IV heavy lift version by strapping on extra solid rocket boosters and other upgrades.
The Atlas series goes back to the 1950s, including launching the first four American astronauts into orbit in 1962-63, before later series went cargo only, as other designs for rockets came online to performed the demanding manned lunar landings and then the Space Shuttle program. The Atlas has changed immensely since then, over its 300+ cargo launches, many of those being military missiles converted to space launchers. The recent Atlas V model brought in a Russian first stage engine.
The Delta series goes back to 1960, with dozens of models and also 300+ launches, all cargo. The Delta IV has 18 successful launches since its inception in 2002, one partial failure (with satellite uselessly deployed), and no catastrophic failures.
Notably, Lockheed-Martin failed in its opportunity to replace the Space Shuttle with its X-33 program. Development of its Orbital Space Plane and VentureStar private craft in the late 1990s and up to 2001 came to a halt when the X-33 project was cancelled due to technical failures. The above does not descend from the X-33 program. The X-33 program was a single stage to orbit winged spacecraft, which could also perform as a suborbital vehicle -- rocket and crew module integrated as one -- rather than a rocket with stages and separate payload. The main technical failure was the large, lightweight tanks needed for a single stage to orbit vehicle. Lockheed Martin later went on to successfully test a 1/5th scale vehicle in 2007 and 2009, descended from the X-33 program.
Another twist is the Boeing X-37 program, which in 2010 launched a winged, small Space Shuttle-like aircraft called the X-37B into orbit on top of an Atlas V rocket, and after several months in orbit, returned it to Earth later that year, landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The X-37 program has been a joint venture between the US Air Force, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and NASA. The community got even bigger, as flights of earlier X-37 craft were released at high altitude by White Knight, which also launched the X-Prize winner SpaceShipOne, all designed by Burt Rutan / Scaled Composites. Boeing initially wanted to launch the X-37 on its Delta IV but there were concerns over launching the winged craft thru the air in the open, so it was moved to the Atlas V which shrouded it. Previously, the Space Shuttle was considered, as this small craft would fit within its payload bay, but Shuttle launch was too expensive.
Boeing announced plans for a scaled up X-37C which can take up to 6 people in its own cargo bay.
Thus, Boeing has two manned spacecraft competing with each other -- the CST-100 and the X-37C.
Still another winged space plane is the Dream Chaser, which is a recent addition to the United Launch Alliance by another company (long story) after a long independent history. The Dream Chaser would take up to 7 people into space, could land at any major commercial airport in the world, can fly around autonomously like other airplanes, and uses fuel which is relatively benign to the environment.
The Dream Chaser was originally developed by SpaceDev, founded and steered by businessman Jim Benson (also known for the Near Earth Asteroid Prospector (NEAP) which never got built). Benson was a geologist who got into computers early on and built up a company, which he subsequently sold his interest in and departed. Then he returned to his lifelong interest in space development and started to invest his savings, time, and energies into space ventures. Benson has a history of participation in various official and nonprofit programs in parallel with his space business activities, with asteroid mining his main initial interest, but then moved to commercial launch of humans from Earth.
SpaceDev was unable to raise enough financial support for Near Earth Asteroid Prospector, but was successful in building microsatellites as a government contractor and profited along those lines.
Then came Dream Chaser. SpaceDev originally planned for Dream Chaser to be a suborbital spacecraft for space tourism and possibly other commercial applications such as short duration intercontinental flights, as a financial stepping stone to later developing a version to launch into orbit and return to Earth.
Benson revived a dying interest in hybrid rocketry, which has longterm advantages as regards mechanical simplicity, the ability to vary thrust (throttle), and safety. A hybrid rocket uses a solid propellant which requires a second, liquid or gas propellant to be introduced for combustion. In 1999, Benson's SpaceDev bought up the intellectual property of the leading hybrid rocket company, American Rocket Company, which had become financially insolvent in 1996.
SpaceDev produced a hybrid rocket which was relied upon to power the 2004 X-Prize winner SpaceShipOne. (This is separate from Dream Chaser.)
At around that same time, SpaceDev made a public announcement of "Dream Chaser" (already well known to many of us who knew Jim) for the purpose of bidding for funding under NASA's Vision for Space Exploration and Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programs. However, NASA passed over SpaceDev while awarding money to others. Due to that, in 2006, Jim Benson resigned as Chairman of SpaceDev to start and focus on his own company, Benson Space Company, to raise private financing for Dream Chaser as a space tourism vehicle, whereby Benson Space Company would contract back to SpaceDev. Benson's goal was to provide affordable and safe space travel to the public, and open up space to humanity.
(One thing that I've not seen mentioned anywhere else is that Jim Benson was actually an environmental activist at a much younger age, self-publishing a book and promoting various environmental causes, before he got into the computer business and subsequently space development.)
Unfortunately, in 2007, Jim Benson was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive kind of malignant brain cancer (glioblastoma multiforme) and eventually passed away in late 2008.
Within a couple of weeks, SpaceDev officials announced that the company would be absorbed by the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), which was over 10 times larger and had long experience in high tech government contracting.
Dream Chaser's development under Sierra Nevada Corporation won subsidization by NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program starting in 2010.
Dream Chaser is designed to take up to 7 people into space, return slowly with maximum G forces of 1.5, be able to land at any large commercial airport in the world, and fly autonomously with its own hybrid engine. The fuel chemicals are fairly benign, unlike those of many other rockets. Test flights will be done by having Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo drop Dream Chaser from high altitude. Virgin Galactic will market the vehicle commercially.
When completed and fully tested, plans are to mass produce the Dream Chaser.
With this amount of diversification, it appears we may have an ample variety of American human launch and space return options to compete with the long proven Russian Soyuz and Chinese Shenzhou Soyuz-derivative.