NASA Plans Full-scale 2012 Commercial Crew Development

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WASHINGTON — With a second round of Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) awards expected in March, NASA is planning a follow-on effort for 2012 that would fund full-scale development of multiple commercial launch systems capable of ferrying astronauts to low Earth orbit.

“We would like to have awards on the full program at the end of CCDev 2,” Phil McAlister, NASA’s commercial crew planning lead, told Space News Oct. 8. “While we are doing CCDev 2, we’ll be planning for and working the agreement activity for the full-up program.”

NASA started CCDev in 2009 with $50 million in economic recovery funds the agency awarded this past February to a mix of five new and established aerospace firms that are using the money to work on technology supportive of U.S. President Barack Obama’s commercial space transportation vision.

With the 10-month CCDev initiative due to wrap up by year’s end, NASA announced plans Oct. 1 to award a second round of  yearlong Space Act agreements in March to firms looking to mature concepts for spacecraft and launchers.

McAlister said NASA expects to issue a call for CCDev 2 proposals Oct. 25 and give industry approximately 45 days to respond. The competition is open to all U.S. companies.

McAlister said CCDev 2 and the subsequent full-scale development program will be led by NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with help from Johnson Space Center in Houston and other NASA centers.

McAlister said NASA plans to fund multiple CCDev 2 projects lasting 12 to 14 months. Funding for the program, however, is in limbo until Congress passes 2011 appropriations.

NASA requested $500 million for commercial crew initiatives for the year ahead, but the NASA Authorization Act the president signed into law Oct. 11 authorizes only $312 million for commercial crew for 2011 and a total of $1.3 billion over three years.

Although Congress has yet to enact spending legislation that would actually fund the levels it authorized, House and Senate appropriators included $500 million and $250 million, respectively, in draft legislation likely to be incorporated into an omnibus spending measure later this year.

Once Congress appropriates commercial crew funding, McAlister said, the vast majority of the 2011 funding will be used for CCDev 2 awards, with the rest covering NASA’s cost of running the program and planning the follow-on procurement of commercial crew vehicles.

“We are assuming that we will be able to start the full program once the [2011 appropriation] is passed,” McAlister said, adding that part of next year will be spent planning a fluid transition between CCDev and the full-up program.

“You don’t want a gap between the two,” he said, though a funding gap between the end of CCDev 1 in December and the selection of CCDev 2 projects in March is expected.

“The commercial partners are going to need to manage that, but at least industry knows CCDev 2 is coming,” McAlister said, adding that NASA is waiting until March to make the new awards because it could take Congress that long to pass 2011 appropriations.

McAlister said NASA is still evaluating acquisition strategies for commercial crew systems. One possible model is the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program under which NASA is investing $500 million to help two U.S. firms — Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. and Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) — develop new rockets and spacecraft capable of delivering cargo to the international space station.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket made its debut in June, and the company has reserved a Nov. 8 launch date at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., for its first COTS demonstration — a flight once slated for September 2008.

Orbital Sciences originally planned to fly its first and only COTS demonstration this December, but now aims to test launch its Taurus 2 rocket in mid-2011 before lofting the unmanned Cygnus cargo tug toward the space station on a second launch planned for September.

Even though neither company has demonstrated that it can deliver cargo to the international space station, both were awarded contracts in late 2008 worth a combined $3.5 billion to make routine supply runs to the orbital outpost. Meanwhile, NASA has asked Congress for an additional $300 million for the COTS program — money the agency says would be used to help SpaceX and Orbital reduce development risk.

Valin Thorn, deputy manager of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office at Johnson, said COTS is an “experimental program” designed to test an unconventional acquisition strategy that spurs innovation while capping NASA’s investment and leveraging private capital to keep the government’s costs down.

Thorn told Space News in an Oct. 11 interview the agency is continuing to learn from COTS, but that it is unlikely to serve solely as the basis for NASA’s commercial crew procurement. Still, he said, elements of the milestone-driven, fixed-price COTS model could help balance the type of cost-plus acquisition NASA and other government agencies traditionally use when funding new technology projects.

“I think people will see that these are the lessons learned from this model that we can apply in other ways we do business,” Thorn said. “With the commercial crew program we’re going to be doing NASA human-rating and certification, so there is an in-between there where we could get more done, get it done faster, and get it done at a lower price.”

Original CCDev Winners

NASA in February awarded nearly $50 million under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program to five companies to mature various human spaceflight technologies:

  • Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev.: $20 million to mature a hybrid rocket engine and aeroshell structure for its Dream Chaser space plane.
  • Boeing Co. of Chicago: $18 million to initiate development of a seven-person CTS-100 spacecraft based on the Apollo capsule.
  • United Launch Alliance of Denver: $6.7 million for an emergency detection system needed to human-rate the Atlas 5 or Delta 4 rockets.
  • Blue Origin of Kent, Wash.: $3.7 million to develop a pusher escape system and composite crew module pressure vessel for its New Shepard spacecraft.
  • Paragon Space Development Corp. of Tucson, Ariz.: $1.4 million to develop an engineering model of an air revitalization system for spacecraft cabins.