NASA Orders More Development Work Under Commercial Crew Contracts

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WASHINGTON — NASA is stretching out the third phase of its Commercial Crew Program, providing an additional $55 million to three contractors for more development work on privately designed space transportation systems that could ferry astronauts to and from the international space station as soon as 2017. 

The added funding brings the combined value of the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) Space Act Agreements NASA awarded in August 2012 to Boeing Space Exploration of Houston, Sierra Nevada Space Systems of Louisville, Colo., and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif.  to about $1.16 billion. It also stretches the contracts’ base period to August 2014 from May 2014, according to an Aug. 15 press release from NASA. 

NASA has used Space Act Agreements, an alternative procurement mechanism not bound by the Federal Acquisition Regulations, to fund development work in its Commercial Crew and Cargo programs. Under Space Act Agreements, contractors are paid for completing self-imposed milestones they create with input from NASA. Such contracts sometimes include optional milestones, which can be funded only at NASA’s discretion. 

For Sierra Nevada, NASA activated two milestones worth a combined $15 million, bringing the total value of the company’s CCiCap award to $227.5 million. Under the newly activated milestones, Sierra Nevada will test the reaction control systems for its lifting-body Dream Chaser spacecraft, and perform a partial critical design review.

Sierra Nevada’s CCiCap award was the smallest of the three NASA gave out last year, and notable because the funding provided would not be enough to take Dream Chaser, which would launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5, to the critical design review milestone. Boeing and SpaceX, on the other hand, are expected to reach that milestone, which in NASA engineering cycles directly precedes construction of flight hardware.

Meanwhile, Boeing, which is working on a capsule called CST-100 that would also launch aboard Atlas 5, would get another $20 million under the CCiCap extension. That brings the company’s award, already the program’s largest, to $480 million. With the extra money, Boeing would hold a Phase 2 Spacecraft Safety Review Board in July, according to an amended copy of the company’s CCiCap contract posted online by NASA. 

SpaceX would also get another $20 million, bringing the company’s total CCiCap award to $440 million.  The new milestone would fund parachute tests, to be completed in November, for the crewed version of the company’s Dragon spacecraft. The newly funded test will give SpaceX a chance to evaluate Dragon’s chutes before they are used in April for a previously scheduled pad-abort test at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. In that test, SpaceX will evaluate the capsule’s crew escape system, which is designed to blast crews to safety in the event of an anomaly during any phase of Dragon’s ascent to space aboard the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. 

NASA plans to pay for the extended CCiCap work with its 2014 appropriation, which has not yet been settled by a deeply divided Congress that is nowhere close to agreeing on a federal budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Partisan discord — Republicans who control the House insist on deeper spending cuts than the Democrats who control the Senate — has some in industry and government expecting that 2013 spending levels will be carried over for at least part of 2014 with a stopgap spending measure known as a continuing resolution.

The Commercial Crew Program, the Obama administration’s signature human spaceflight initiative, stood to receive about $490 million in 2013 under a spending bill that was subject to across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. However, the White House has tried to bump that up to $525 million for 2013 in an operating plan that Congress has yet to approve. Federal agencies have some discretion to shift appropriated funds between programs via operating plans, so long as their congressional appropriators do not oppose the changes.

Meanwhile, an award is expected next July for the fourth phase of the Commercial Crew Program, the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract. For this phase of the program NASA plans to subsidize construction and certification of new crewed spacecraft, and a proof-of-concept flight to the international space station. 

Also under this fourth round of the Commercial Crew Program, the agency could issue task orders for astronaut taxi services. These task orders would be available only to contractors that have staged at least one demonstration flight to the station. 

In a July 30 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee at NASA headquarters in Washington, Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, said the current budget might allow the agency to carry two companies into the fourth phase of the Commercial Crew Program.