LAS CRUCES, N.M. — With an eye toward keeping the next crewed U.S. launch on track for 2017, executives with the companies competing to become NASA’s post-shuttle provider of astronaut transportation urged the agency to familiarize itself immediately with the three competing space taxi designs funded in August.

Moderating a panel discussion here Oct. 18 at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, George Sowers, an executive with United Launch Alliance of Denver — whose Atlas 5 rocket is at the heart of two of the three competing proposals — summed up the industry perspective.

“What we can’t stand is having folks come along when the system has already been designed and gone through a preliminary design review and say, ‘We don’t want you to do it that way, do it this way,’” Sowers said. “It’s really important to have the government involved as early as possible and be close to the decision-makers on certification, all the way down to the lowest-level NASA person. They need to get involved in the very beginning.”

On Aug. 2, NASA announced that Boeing Space Exploration, Sierra Nevada Space Systems and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) would split a $1.2 billion Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) award to do 21 months of development work on competing crew transportation systems. NASA wants at least one company to start flying astronauts to the international space station no later than 2017 — but no system can fly astronauts before receiving a NASA safety certification.

Complicating matters is the fact that CCiCap is being funded via Space Act Agreements, nontraditional contracts that bar NASA from dictating design requirements. While this approach gives NASA’s industry partners greater control over the design process, potentially hastening the day their systems are ready to go into production, it also prevents NASA from performing a safety certification under CCiCap.

To work around that prohibition and begin the safety certification process as close to the very beginning of CCiCap as it could, NASA created a program that will be administered under traditional contracts governed by the Federal Acquisition Regulation and run in parallel with CCiCap design work. NASA plans to award the first round of these Certification Products Contracts, each of which will be worth up to $10 million, in February. NASA issued a request for proposals Sept. 12. Bids were due Oct. 12.

Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX executives offered their support for NASA’s two-pronged design and certify approach during their Oct. 18 panel here, but they also voiced concerns about the procurement approach, which has not been tried in NASA’s human spaceflight program.

“We think the biggest challenge is working to understand how to get the vehicle fully certified,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of Sierra Nevada Space Systems, Louisville, Colo. “The certification program is helping us do that [but] we find ourselves designing and building hardware and, at the same time, learning about the certification process. It isn’t like we have that locked down.”

“The interesting part is going to be how deep in the swimming pool NASA chooses to go,” said John Mulholland, Boeing Space Exploration’s vice president and program manager of commercial programs. “If there’s any changes to the requirements or any issues that NASA has with your design, late changes in your design are really going to affect cost [and] schedule efficiency.”

Of the three commercial crew competitors, SpaceX has had the most experience with the Commercial Crew Program’s hybrid procurement approach. The company developed elements of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule under a Space Act Agreement signed in 2006. In 2008, SpaceX signed a traditional NASA contract, worth $1.6 billion, that calls for the company to deliver 20 metric tons of cargo to the space station over 12 flights. The company flew its first contracted delivery to the space station earlier this month. At press time, Dragon was scheduled to return to Earth with experiments and other cargo Oct. 28.

“The difference between a traditional program and what we’re doing breaks down a little bit, frankly, when it comes to certification,” said Garrett Reisman, a former astronaut who joined SpaceX in 2011 and is now the company’s commercial crew development manager. “Because then NASA is in the driver’s seat. Either they approve or they don’t. At that point, they have full control over the decision. Whereas up to that point, industry can proceed with great speed.”

Reisman dismissed the idea that a commercial procurement approach could only be done with Space Act Agreements. Companies like SpaceX can work just as quickly under a traditional contract as they can under a Space Act Agreement, provided NASA includes with its contract a clear statement of work and a firm list of deliverables that allow industry partners to move with as much haste as they can muster, Reisman said.

Boeing’s CCiCap award is worth $460 million. SpaceX’s is worth $440 million. Sierra Nevada’s award is valued at $212.5 million. Boeing and SpaceX are developing wingless capsules while Sierra Nevada is working on a lifting body design called Dream Chaser. Boeing and Sierra Nevada plan to launch on the proven Atlas 5, while SpaceX would launch on an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 rocket that has flown four times since its June 2010 debut.

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...