NASA's Stephanie Schierholz introduces the panel of Johnson Space Center Director Dr. Ellen Ochoa, seated, left, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders, Boeing's Jon Elbon, SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke. Credit: NASA TV

WASHINGTON — With a legal challenge now behind them, two companies that won NASA contracts offered more details Jan. 26 about their plans to develop and test commercial crew vehicles, while the agency expressed optimism those vehicles will be ready for service by 2017.

At a press conference at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, both NASA and company officials offered new details about Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contracts the agency awarded to Boeing and SpaceX in September. Those details had largely been under wraps while a third company, Sierra Nevada Corp., filed a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

On Jan. 5, the GAO denied the protest, a decision NASA commercial crew program manager Kathy Lueders described as a “late Christmas present” for the program. “It’s great to be able to finally talk openly about what the commercial crew program is doing,” she said.

John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space Exploration, said the company was working on final details of the design of its CST-100 spacecraft. “The team is working hard to finish the design,” he said. Boeing plans to hold a critical design review in March, after which the company will move “full bore” into spacecraft manufacturing.

Most of the company’s major CST-100 test milestones are scheduled for 2017. Elbon said a pad abort test is planned for February 2017, followed by an uncrewed flight test to the International Space Station in April. Boeing will then fly the first crew on the CST-100 — one Boeing test pilot and one NASA astronaut — in July 2017. If all those tests are successful, the first operational mission to the ISS, carrying four NASA astronauts, is planned for December 2017.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell offered a slightly more accelerated schedule for completing the crewed version of its Dragon spacecraft. A pad abort test, a milestone under the company’s prior commercial crew award from NASA, is now scheduled “in the next month or so” from Cape Canaveral, Florida. That will be followed by an in-flight abort test later this year.

Shotwell said SpaceX plans an uncrewed test flight of the upgraded Dragon to the ISS in late 2016, with a crewed test flight in early 2017. She estimated that SpaceX will have flown more than 50 Falcon 9 missions prior to that crewed test flight. The most recent Falcon 9 launch, on Jan. 10, was the fourteenth by all versions of that vehicle to date.

When SpaceX unveiled its crewed Dragon design in May 2014, one feature it highlighted was the vehicle’s ability to perform “propulsive” landings under rocket power. Shotwell said at the press conference that while such landings are an “ultimate goal” of the vehicle, initial crewed missions will return to Earth in much the same way as the current Dragon cargo spacecraft. “We won’t be certifying the propulsive landings initially,” she said. “We will be certifying the water landings with parachutes.”

While Boeing and SpaceX talked about their development plans, NASA emphasized the benefits the commercial crew vehicles will provide. Lueders said that the average “seat price” under NASA’s contracts with the companies is $58 million. NASA’s latest contract with the Russian space agency Roscosmos for Soyuz flights, completed in April 2014, included six seats at a cost of $457.9 million, or $76.3 million per seat.

Lueders, though, declined to discuss any differences in the prices offered by Boeing and SpaceX, saying the $58-million price was averaged over the life of both contracts. “If anyone’s planning on going and mapping that back to individual pricing, that’s not our intent,” she said.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was hopeful that the companies would remain on schedule so that NASA did not need another extension of its Soyuz contract with Russia, which currently runs through 2017. “I don’t ever want to have write another check to Roscosmos,” he said. “If we can make that [2017] date, I’m a happy camper.”

Keeping the companies on schedule will require adequate funding for the program in future years. “The Congress has, I think, started to understand the critical importance of commercial crew and cargo,” Bolden said. “I am optimistic that Congress will accept the President’s proposal for commercial crew for 2016.”

However, in prior years Congress has funded the program at less than the administration’s request. In fiscal year 2015 the program received $805 million after requesting $848 million, with larger shortfalls in prior years.

Bolden did not disclose what would happen if the program suffered a funding shortfall in 2016, but industry sources say it’s likely contracts would be stretched out, possibly requiring Bolden or his successor to write another check to Roscosmos for additional Soyuz seats.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...