WASHINGTON — NASA kicked off the final stage of its Commercial Crew Program Nov. 19, calling for proposals for privately designed spacecraft to fly astronauts to and from the international space station twice a year starting in 2017. 

The agency will pick a winner, or winners, no later than September 2014. Proposals are due Jan. 22, and a pre-proposal conference with NASA officials is scheduled for Dec. 4 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, according to the Nov. 19 solicitation for the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCtCap) contract.

Unlike the previous three rounds of the Commercial Crew Program, CCtCap will cover both hardware development and transportation services. Companies will be required to complete a successful crewed test flight to the station to earn a NASA safety certification. Certified spacecraft would be eligible to receive CCtCap task orders for additional flights. NASA would order a maximum of six flights under CCtCap, the solicitation says.

Boeing Space Exploration, Sierra Nevada Space Systems and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) are now spending $1.1 billion worth of NASA funding — and some of their own money — under the third round of the Commercial Crew Program, which began in August 2012.

Boeing and SpaceX are working on crewed space capsules, while Sierra Nevada is working on Dream Chaser, a lifting-body vehicle that resembles a small space shuttle. Boeing and Sierra Nevada plan to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, while SpaceX plans to launch on its own Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket.

Citing a desire to drive down procurement costs through competition and to create a redundant crew-carrying capacity for a nation that currently has none, NASA says it wants to fund and fly at least two crew transportation systems. 

However, budget realities may force the agency to pick just one. NASA says it needs more than $800 million a year to keep multiple companies involved with Commercial Crew, but Congress has never appropriated more than $525 million a year for the program.

The final round of the Commercial Crew Program is technically open to any company that can demonstrate it has a crew transportation system that satisfies requirements NASA laid down in another commercial crew contract known as the Certification Products Contract. Only Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX received such contracts. 

Moving on without Mango

The final phase of the Commercial Crew Program will move forward without longtime NASA hand Ed Mango, who, as Florida Today first reported Nov. 20, pleaded guilty to a federal conflict-of-interest charge that carries a maximum sentence of five years and a $250,000 fine. However, a plea agreement dated Nov. 13 and filed Nov. 19 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida shows federal prosecutors will recommend a reduced sentence.

Mango’s attorney, Alan Diamond, said he is hopeful his client will avoid jail time when he is sentenced early next year. “I don’t think that’s out of the realm of possibility,” Diamond told SpaceNews Nov. 21. “He’s remorseful for this having occurred and he’s accepting responsibility for it. You’ve got to look at the years at NASA he’s had before this. I’m hoping that that will carry some weight with the judge.”

If the magistrate judge accepts Mango’s plea Dec. 2, the case will be turned over to a federal judge who would render a sentence 60 to 90 days later, Diamond said.

Mango, who pleaded guilty to improperly advocating on behalf of a NASA employee in whom he had a financial interest, stepped down as manager of the Commercial Crew Program effective Oct. 21 to deal with personal matters, NASA said at the time.

Court documents show that Mango loaned money to Candrea Thomas, a Kennedy public affairs officer who worked on the Commercial Crew Program, late last year, including a cash advance from his personal credit card so that Thomas could hire a lawyer following her December 2012 arrest on felony charges of forging public records. The previous December, Thomas was charged with driving under the influence and property damage, Brevard County Court records show. After her driver’s license was suspended, Florida Today and other Florida media outlets reported, Thomas forged temporary driving permits that she presented to NASA officials in order to continue driving media around the space center. Brevard County Court records show Thomas’ December 2012 arrest was for five counts of felony forgery between April and July 2012. Thomas was the only Kennedy public affairs officer arrested last December, according to NASA spokesman Mike Curie. 

As a result of the December 2012 arrest, Thomas learned she would face disciplinary action by NASA. She contacted Mango, who then reached out to several NASA officials, including Kennedy Director Robert Cabana, to advocate leniency for Thomas — identified in Mango’s plea agreement as “C.T.” and “Thomas.”

Mango told those he contacted that Thomas was a single mother who could ill afford to be suspended without pay. Mango did not disclose that he had loaned money to Thomas, who as a result of his intervention was allowed to serve a two-week suspension from NASA over a longer period of time to avoid going without a paycheck. According to his plea agreement, Mango told investigators with NASA’s Office of Inspector General during a two-hour interview this past June that he had used his credit card to loan Thomas money to retain legal counsel and that she was paying him back monthly via personal check. He told the investigators he “did not believe that he did anything wrong, but believed his advocacy with others on C.T.’s behalf was appropriate because he was familiar with her work product.”

NASA began the search for Mango’s permanent replacement the same week his plea agreement became public. The agency posted an opening for a new Kennedy-based Commercial Crew Program manager Nov. 18 on USAJobs.gov. NASA intends to keep the search open through Dec. 31.

In the meantime, Kathryn Lueders, who became Mango’s deputy in February, is acting manager for the Commercial Crew Program and will meet with industry in December during the pre-proposal conference at Kennedy.

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...