WASHINGTON — NASA is set this year to award its first contract for a crewed spacecraft since the space shuttle and also to begin procurement of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s next polar-orbiting weather satellite.
The big human spaceflight acquisition is already underway. In August, or September at the latest, NASA expects to award at least one company a Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract to develop a spacecraft capable of sending astronauts to and from the international space station, according to Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA headquarters here.
The fourth major phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, CCtCap will be the contracting vehicle not only for spacecraft development and testing but also for flight services. The contract includes both a development and safety-certification phase as well as task orders for routine astronaut flights. To be eligible for a task order, a CCtCap awardee must complete a crewed demonstration mission to station. The smallest possible CCtCap task order is for two flights, the largest for six.
Routine astronaut trips under CCtCap could begin as soon as 2017. Two of the likely competitors — Boeing Space Exploration of Houston and Hawthorne, Calif.-based— have said they could complete crewed demonstration missions as soon as 2015. Sierra Nevada Corp. announced Jan. 23 that it plans to launch its lifting body Dream Chaser spacecraft on an uncrewed orbital test flight in November 2016.
NASA wants to fund at least two aspiring Commercial Crew providers under CCtCap. Last year, McAlister suggested that the agency probably would not be able to carry three companies, as it did in the program’s third round: the two-year, $1.2 billion Commercial Crew Integrated Capability phase, which began in August 2012.
Part of the problem, NASA officials from Administrator Charleson down have said, is that Congress has never funded the Commercial Crew program at the level the Obama White House requested.
The $696 million Commercial Crew budget included in the 2014 omnibus spending bill signed into law Jan. 17 is a 25 percent increase compared with the program’s 2013 budget and comes closest to meeting the administration’s request. However, it is still more than $100 million less than what the White House has sought for Commercial Crew in its last three budget requests, and more than $500 million less than the 2011 request.
Meanwhile,NOAA, according to an industry source, is planning to start competition for its second Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) spacecraft in 2014. NASA, as usual, will manage the procurement for NOAA.
JPSS-2 would be the third satellite in the JPSS program, an $11 billion successor to the civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System program — known as NPOESS — canceled in 2010.
JPSS-2 would notionally launch in November 2021, four years after JPSS-1. The first satellite in the JPSS series, Suomi NPP, launched in 2011. That satellite was designed as an NPOESS testbed but was pushed into operational service for want of an alternative.
The bill for JPSS-1, including a spacecraft bus from Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. and four instruments, came to $655.5 million. JPSS-2 is to be a copy of JPSS-1, and NOAA has said the instrument contractors are all expected to get sole-source agreements for duplicate instruments. JPSS instrument contractors are Ball, Exelis Geospatial Systems, Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems, and Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems.
There is, however, a wild card in the deck that could cause JPSS procurements to snowball in 2014. In November, an independent review team led by former Martin Marietta Chief Executive A. Thomas Young recommended that NOAA immediately do a block buy of JPSS’s critical weather instruments. The Young team’s report recommended securing enough instruments to cover four polar-orbiting satellites. It also endorsed adding a gap-filler satellite to the JPSS program. The report suggested launching this smaller satellite, which would host only Exelis’ Cross Track Infrared Sounder and Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems’ Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder, by 2016.
NOAA has been quiet about its plans, but Congress in the 2014 omnibus spending bill prodded the agency to make a decision quickly.
“The Committee expects NOAA to present a strategy with the fiscal year 2015 budget that fully addresses both the short- and long-term challenges associated with the gap and fragility of the program,” lawmakers wrote in the report that accompanied H.R. 3547.
The White House is expected to send Congress a 2015 budget proposal in February.
Meanwhile, an industry source said there could be a competition for the JPSS-2 spacecraft bus contract this year. Ball, which provided the bus for Suomi NPP and JPSS-1, is the incumbent. If there is a competition, Ball might face challenges from, which built the NOAA Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellites that JPSS is designed to replace and Boeing Defense, Space and Security, which built geostationary weather satellites for NOAA until Lockheed Martin took over that role in 2008.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN