NASA’s Growing Commercial Contingent

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launched at 3:44 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, May 22, 2012. The Dragon capsule on board was the first commercial vehicle to dock with the ISS on the flight. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert / Wired4Space

NASA has been working with a number of commercial partners in the name of reestablishing launch capability on US soil; since the end of the shuttle program last July, American astronauts have been relying on the Russian Soyuz for rides up to the International Space Station (ISS). Commercial development programs include the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability program (CCiCap) and a Certification Products Contract program (CPC). It seems like the agency is pursuing a host of vehicles for the same job, but really each company the space agency is funding has a slightly different approach to solving the same problem.

NASA’s CCiCap program was designed to fund companies’ development of fully integrated crew transportation systems through the Space Act Agreements program. Last month, NASA selected three companies to the share the $1.1 billion prize: SpaceX got $440 million, Boeing got $460 million, and Sierra Nevada Corporation got $212.5 million. It’s a 21 month agreement between that should put all three companies on track to develop a spacecraft, launch vehicle, related ground operations, and the necessary flight operations to undertake full missions, including sending NASA astronauts into orbit.

NASA has cited SpaceX’s flight experience with the Dragon spacecraft as a major factor in its decision to fund the company. As per its CCiCap agreement, SpaceX plans to launch up to 25 flights on Falcon 9 rockets, including nine unmanned Dragon spacecraft, before sending a manned mission aloft. And although the Dragon is billed as a reusable capsule, the company has said it will use a new vehicle for every launch under the commercial resupply contract. For now, the company is working on developing Dragon’s new abort system with on-pad and in-flight demonstrations testing, and upgrading its Falcon 9 with more powerful engines. SpaceX’s agreement with NASA includes 14 milestones leading to its first manned Dragon test flight hopefully midway through 2015.

A drop test of Boeing’s CST-100 capsule on May 3. Photo Credit: Boeing

Boeing’s methodical approach to designing a crew capsule, the CST-100, impressed NASA enough to win the biggest piece of the CCiCap funding. Boeing’s proposal is marked by a comprehensive approach that incorporates incremental design milestones and critical review periods; currently a design freeze is planned for 2014 so the company and space agency can agree on the direction the spacecraft is taking. Boeing’s agreement includes 19 milestones, the first of which it completed on August 23, which include a piloted CST-100 demo mission in late 2016.

The last CCiCap winner is Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser. It’s the one that’s not like the others, including NASA’s own Orion capsule; it is a lifting body, a wingless vehicle that generates enough lift thanks to its aerodynamic design to be pilotable to a runway landing. By contrast, Dragon, CST-100, and Orion are all currently landing by parachutes; CST-100 alone is currently landing on land in tests. Lifting bodies are finicky, and the difficulty and inevitable cost increases associated with these types of vehicles is one reason behind NASA’s decision to award Sierra Nevada less than the other two CCiCap winners.

But Dream Chaser evokes the smooth lines and slick landings of the space shuttle, a factor that appeals to the space agency and that the company is banking on. Corporate Vice President and head of Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems Mark Sirangelo points out, “We are now the only lifting body in the fleet, and it’s our belief – as also noted by NASA people – that the Agency is seeking diversity via the launch vehicles and spacecraft, so having both a lifting body and capsules in the fleet is a very strong way to go.” The winged lifting body would return to Earth for a runway landing, giving crews and science payloads a smoother ride than capsules.

Sierra Nevada’s agreement with NASA has just nine milestones designed to advance the company’s spacecraft, specifically propulsion, attitude control, other subsystems, and an overall reduction of risk. Like SpaceX and Boeing, Sierra Nevada has also completed its first milestone with NASA, a Program Implementation Plan Review with the agency’s Commercial Crew Program management.

An artist’s concept of Dream Chaser launching into orbit. Image Credit: Sierra Nevada

But these aren’t the only contracts NASA has ongoing with commercial partners. The space agency has launched a two-stage certification process aimed at ensuring commercial passenger spaceships currently under development meet the agency’s safety standards, schedule, and mission requirements. NASA also expects to award multiple firms 15-month Certification Products Contracts (CPC) worth up to $10 million to develop privately owned systems able to take astronauts to the ISS. This is separate from any CCiCap funding but doesn’t exclude SpaceX, Boeing, or Sierra Nevada. The agency says companies may be eligible for both but NASA is keeping the money separate since one program “is for public purpose and one is for NASA purpose,” said NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Ed Mango.

It looks complicated but NASA is really pursuing different avenues with the goal of getting a more active manned spaceflight program up and running in the US. While manned launches on any of these systems are years away, it’s still an exciting future to look forward to.

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  1. I so much wish the best of success for everyone involved, NASA and the private companies. This can only be a good thing for the advancement and opening up of human space transportation to LEO. If it succeeds, who knows where it will take us?

    And the last paragraph is all the essence of this:

    “It looks complicated but NASA is really pursuing different avenues with the goal of getting a more active manned spaceflight program up and running in the US. While manned launches on any of these systems are years away, it’s still an exciting future to look forward to.”

    It definitelly is!

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