NASA To Pair Space Taxi Development with Tickets To Ride

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — The company or companies that win the next round of NASA commercial crew development funds will do more than build, test-fly and certify their spaceships. The agreements also are expected to cover up to six operational missions per vendor to ferry crew to the international space station, program managers said at an Aug. 1 industry briefing here to discuss a draft solicitation for the program’s next phase.

“It’s really two contracts in one,” said Maria Collura, Commercial Crew Program certification manager. “That is a significant difference from what we do with many contracts with NASA.”

Bidders also will have an opportunity to showcase their spacecraft’s cargo capabilities and other attributes beyond NASA’s core requirements to safely, reliably and cost-effectively transport crew members to and from the space station by 2017.

NASA does not plan to replace the cargo flight services it currently buys from Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp. SpaceX already has made a test flight and two cargo runs to the station. Orbital Sciences plans its debut station mission in September. 

Even while their rockets and capsules were relatively early in development, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences won contracts worth a combined $3.5 billion to fly cargo to the station. Those agreements helped ensure the companies remained on solid financial footing well before they were flying for NASA, which in turn reinforced the agency’s chance of getting a space transportation system — two of them, actually — outside of expensive and time-consuming traditional cost-plus-award fee contracts. 

NASA is looking to replicate its successful space cargo transportation program in a more daunting and riskier program to fly astronauts, an effort that began in 2010. Currently, NASA is backing spaceship designs by Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. 

With the next phase of the program, called Commercial Crew Transportation Capability, or CCtCap, the agency likely will pare down to two contenders, and possibly to one depending on funding. For the 2014 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, the Obama administration has requested $821 million for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Pending congressional funding proposals range from $500 million to $700 million. 

If the program’s funding falls short, NASA may decide it is more important to keep at least two firms in the competition and delay its 2017 goal for ending Russia’s monopoly on flying crews to the station. NASA’s latest contract for Soyuz flight services covers training, launch and return rides for six astronauts through June 2017 at a cost of $424 million.  

The lead time for procuring Soyuz capsules is about three years. 

“At some point very soon, we are going to have to commit to additional Soyuzes or going on commercial crew,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, told reporters at the industry briefing here. 

“I think there are some benefits in having an overlap period,” McAlister said. “The systems will still be very new … What we’ve seen historically is that those first few flights, we still learn a lot so there’s definitely advantage of having an overlap period. Whether or not we’re going to be able to afford that is the question.”

Redundancy also drives NASA’s reluctance to select just one space taxi design. 

“The biggest risk to the program is prematurely eliminating competition,” McAlister told a NASA advisory committee meeting July 30. “There are still some uncertainties about each one of these systems, so if we were to go all-in on one right now, I would be very nervous about that.”

“The goal of the Commercial Crew Program is safe, reliable and cost-effective human space transportation to low Earth orbit. Competition gives you a good price, but the partners know that safety and reliability are important criteria for NASA so they are battling to be the safest, to be the most reliable and to be the most cost-effective,” he added.

The draft solicitation also provides guidelines for companies wishing to sell spaceflight services to customers beyond NASA and it designates the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation as the agency responsible for licensing commercial crew flights beyond test flights that are part of the development effort. The FAA oversight extends to the commercial crew operational missions that are expected to be included in the contracts.

NASA expects to make one or more awards next summer.