NASA Commercial Crew Awards Leave Unanswered Questions

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s selection of two companies to develop commercial crew transportation systems ended months of speculation regarding who would win the multibillion-dollar contracts, but the announcement left open many questions about both the winning and losing bids.

NASA awarded Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts worth up to $6.8 billion combined Sept. 16 to Boeing Co. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Under the contracts, the two companies will continue development of spacecraft capable of transporting NASA astronauts to and from the international space station as early as 2017, ending the agency’s dependence on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

The fixed-price contracts cover the development and certification of the spacecraft, including a series of five reviews culminating in certification of the vehicles to carry NASA astronauts. Each contract requires at least one test flight to the ISS with both NASA and private-sector crew members onboard.

The contracts also include at least two and as many as six operational flights per company to the ISS, each carrying four astronauts, once NASA certifies each company’s vehicle. Each flight will also be able to transport 100 kilograms of cargo to and from the station.

“This was not an easy choice,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at the Sept. 16 announcement at the Kennedy Space Center, “but this is the best choice for NASA and the nation.”

Boeing won the larger of the two CCtCap contracts, valued at $4.2 billion. The company will use it to complete development of the CST-100 spacecraft, a capsule it has been working on since the initial phases of NASA’s commercial crew program in 2010. The spacecraft will be launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

“Boeing has been part of every American human space flight program, and we’re honored that NASA has chosen us to continue that legacy,” John Elbon, Boeing vice president and general manager for space exploration, said in a company press release.

SpaceX’s CCtCap contract is valued at $2.6 billion. It is working on the Dragon V2 spacecraft, an upgraded version of the Dragon spacecraft currently used to transport cargo to and from the ISS. Dragon V2 will launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket.

“SpaceX is deeply honored by the trust NASA has placed in us,” SpaceX Chief Executive and chief designer Elon Musk said in a statement provided by the company. “We welcome today’s decision and the mission it advances with gratitude and seriousness of purpose.”

The size of the contracts, and the difference between the Boeing and SpaceX awards, raised many questions.

In the months leading up to the Sept. 16 announcement, there was speculation that NASA would make “one and a half” awards: a full-sized contract to one company and a smaller one to a second company that would allow it to make limited progress. NASA officials, though, said that the scope of the two contracts is the same.

“We basically awarded based on the proposals that we were given,” Kathy Lueders, NASA commercial crew program manager, said in a teleconference with reporters after the announcement. “Both contracts have the same requirements. The companies proposed the value within which they were able to do the work, and the government accepted that.”

The combined value of the contracts was also larger than many expected, although NASA said it fits within the planned budgets. “Our plan to execute the contracts is per the proposed budget as outlined in the 2015 NASA request,” Lueders said. That budget proposal requested $848.3 million for commercial crew in 2015, and a total of nearly $3.42 billion for the program from 2015 through 2019.

The CCtCap contract values announced Sept. 16 include both development costs and the maximum of six operational flights after certification. NASA did not break out the amount in each contract going to certification versus operational missions.

However, a Sept. 18 report by the NASA Office of Inspector General on the ISS program noted that the agency has assumed a per-seat price for commercial crew missions of $70.7 million, the same as it will pay for a Soyuz seat in 2016. Twelve flights with four astronauts per flight results in a total transportation cost of nearly $3.4 billion. That, coupled with the commercial crew development costs in the budget proposal, would be consistent with the $6.8 billion combined value of the CCtCap contracts.

“We believe we can fund these contracts. We hope to get the president’s budget request for ’15,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA headquarters, said in a talk at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) meeting here Sept. 17. Appropriations bills in Congress would provide between $785 million and $805 million for commercial crew in 2015, short of the requested $848 million.

There are also questions about the future plans of the losing company in the CCtCap competition, Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) Space Systems. It sought funding to continue work on its Dream Chaser spacecraft, a lifting body vehicle launched atop an Atlas 5 but one that, unlike the CST-100 and Dragon capsules, glides to a runway landing.

SNC, in a statement, said it was “disappointed” in the decision but would wait until a debrief with NASA before announcing its plans. “When this process is complete and after a thorough evaluation, SNC will elaborate further on its future options” regarding both the CCtCap contract decision and the future of Dream Chaser, it said.

Company officials previously indicated they would consider continuing development of Dream Chaser if not selected for a CCtCap contract. “For the last year, we have been quietly standing up a commercial and international outreach effort to look at other missions for Dream Chaser,” Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of the Louisville, Colorado-based Space Systems division, said in a May interview. “We’ve been spending a lot of time looking at the different markets for the vehicle.”

NASA left the door open to keeping SNC involved in the program through an unfunded extension of its current commercial crew agreement. “We hope to continue that partnership,” McAlister said.

NASA declined to go into details about why it chose Boeing and SpaceX or other aspects of the competition, including the number of proposals it received. Lueders said NASA would release more details about the selection, including a source selection statement, at an “appropriate” but unspecified date.

She added that while the goal is to have the companies’ vehicles certified to carry NASA astronauts to the ISS by the end of 2017, safety considerations would override that schedule goal. “We currently have plans and credible schedules to get certified by 2017,” she said of the proposals from Boeing and SpaceX. “We’re not going to sacrifice crew safety for that goal.”

Despite the open questions about the contracts, the CCtCap selections received a largely positive reception from Capitol Hill.

“I believe that this program is our best opportunity to launch American astronauts on American rockets and end our reliance on Russia,” House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said in a talk at the COMSTAC meeting.

However, he suggested the contract awards would not end congressional scrutiny of the overall commercial crew effort. “I look forward to working with NASA and these companies to ensure that the United States has safe and reliable transportation to the international space station,” he said.