WASHINGTON — On the eve of a congressional hearing on its effort to nurture privately owned vehicles for ferrying astronauts to the international space station, NASA issued a report saying four companies receiving federal funding under the agency’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) 2 program are making “substantial progress toward achieving crewed spaceflight in the middle of the decade.”

“In just six short months since the Commercial Crew Development Round 2 partners were selected, they have completed 21 of the 57 planned milestones,” NASA said in the Oct. 25 report. The milestones, representing a total of $32.4 million in federal funding, include airbag drop tests of Boeing’s proposed CST-100 capsule and various technical reviews of other planned crew-carrying vehicles.
In addition to Boeing Space Exploration of Houston, the companies receiving CCDev 2 funding are Blue Origin, Kent, Wash.; Sierra Nevada Corp., Sparks, Nev.; and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Hawthorne, Calif. All signed funded Space Act Agreements with NASA in April.

NASA began issuing progress reports on the CCDev program during the summer. The latest coincides with a scheduled Oct. 26 hearing of the House Science Committee, whose Republican leadership has been critical of the effort. The witness list includes top executives from all of the CCDev 2 participants, in addition to NASA human spaceflight chief William Gerstenmaier and NASA Inspector General Paul Martin.

The hearing’s charter, released Oct. 25, included a long list of questions about the commercial crew program’s progress to date, and its viability in the constrained budget environment gripping Washington.

The charter also revealed that NASA on Oct. 17 awarded an unfunded Space Act Agreement to Excalibur Almaz Inc. of Houston. The company submitted a CCDev 2 proposal to NASA, but the details have not been made public. The Houston-based entity has ties to the overseas group Excalibur Almaz, which is based in the Isle of Man and has access to Soviet-era space hardware.

“We’re providing limited technical support consistent with the purpose of the CCDev 2 activity, which is to advance orbital commercial transportation concepts enabling significant progress on maturing the design and development of the system,” NASA spokesman Michael Braukus wrote in an Oct. 25 response to questions about the Excalibur Almaz agreement.

Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA headquarters here, would not provide any details about the agreement with Excalibur Almaz, except to say that “they have a credible concept.”

Excalibur Almaz has acquired several previously flown Soviet-era Almaz space capsules and plans to offer spaceflights to private passengers. The company, which did not reply to a request for comment, includes among its senior leadership former NASA officials and astronauts, as well as former Russian cosmonauts.

Rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA) of Denver and rocket-motor manufacturer ATK Aerospace Systems of Magna, Utah, were also mentioned in NASA’s commercial crew progress report. Both companies have unfunded Space Act Agreements to human rate rockets that could one day be used to launch crew carrying vehicles. ULA’s candidate vehicle is the proven Atlas 5;  ATK has designed a rocket dubbed Liberty, a concept that was passed over for CCDev 2 funding in April.

Space Act Agreements are a means of providing the private sector with federal funds or access to NASA documents and expertise without having to draw up complex government contracts subject to federal acquisition regulations. The first two rounds of CCDev were funded via Space Act Agreements.

The next phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, known as the integrated design contract, will require bidders to propose architecture designs that include a spacecraft and launch vehicle. All of the CCDev participants except Space Exploration Technologies plan to pair their crew vehicles with an Atlas 5 for this phase of the competition.

Despite the objections of some commercial spaceflight hopefuls, the integrated design contracts will be administered under the federal acquisition regulations.

NASA requested $850 million for its commercial crew program in 2012 and has warned that, unless the effort is fully funded in that and subsequent years, the agency will have to continue relying on Russian vehicles to fly astronauts beyond 2017, the target date for availability of commercial crew taxis.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.