WASHINGTON — NASA expects to award roughly $200 million next year to multiple contractors seeking to refine designs for launchers and spacecraft that would transport astronauts to and from low Earth orbit on a commercial basis, the agency announced Oct. 25.

“Multiple awards are expected to be announced by March 2011 for terms of up to 14 months,” NASA said in an Oct. 25 news release, adding that money available for the effort will depend on congressional approval of funds anticipated in a 2011 omnibus appropriations bill in the coming months. Proposals are due Dec. 13.

NASA started the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program in 2009 with $50 million in economic recovery funds. The agency awarded the first round of contracts 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.

The president requested $500 million in 2011 for commercial crew initiatives, which would include CCDev, although the 2010 NASA Authorization Act Obama signed into law Oct. 11 recommends just $312 million for the efforts next year and a total of $1.3 billion through 2013. House and Senate appropriators included $500 million and $250 million, respectively, for commercial crew in draft legislation likely to be incorporated into an omnibus spending measure later this year.

Under the CCDev 2 effort, contractors are expected to submit proposals to refine designs for subsystems or components that could “accelerate the availability of an identified element” of a commercial transportation system, NASA said in a solicitation posted to the agency’s procurement website Oct. 25.

“For example, work on items such as life support systems, launch abort systems, or rendezvous sensors would meet the goals of this Announcement if shown to accelerate the development of a participant or team member’s proposed spacecraft,” the Announcement for Proposals states. Another example would be work on items such as emergency detection systems, main engines or propellants that could accelerate launch vehicle development.

However, proposals to work on subsystems or components not tied to a specific commercial vehicle design would not meet CCDev 2 goals, the document states.

NASA expects to announce CCDev 2 winners by March and enter into funded Space Act Agreements that would end in May 2012 or sooner. A full-scale development program for commercial crew taxis is expected to follow, though it remains unclear whether NASA will have the funds needed for a robust effort. While Obama requested $3.3 billion through 2013 for commercial crew initiatives, Congress authorized just $1.3 billion for the program over the same period. Passage of NASA’s actual 2011 budget, meanwhile, won’t happen before lawmakers return to Washington in mid-November for a lame duck legislative session.

Among the likely contenders for the CCDev 2 awards are the five companies that won CCDev awards in February. Those original winners were Sparks, Nev.-based Sierra Nevada Corp., Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin, Chicago-based Boeing Co., Tucson, Ariz.-based Paragon Space Development and United Launch Alliance of Denver.

Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems also is weighing a bid for CCDev 2, though it is unclear whether such a proposal would involve the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle it has been developing for NASA since 2006 as part of the Moon-bound Constellation program the Obama administration seeks to cancel.

Ken Reightler, Lockheed Martin vice president of NASA program integration, said Oct. 21 the company is considering whether to enter the competition.

“We continue to be engaged in CCDev 2 and to monitor what’s going on with it,” he told Space News following a panel discussion at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, N.M., adding that Lockheed Martin could bid “potentially as a partner or as a prime.”

Reightler declined to specify whether Orion would be involved in any potential CCDev proposal, but said the vehicle’s design has drawn interest from customers other than NASA. During the panel discussion, Reightler characterized Orion as “our offering for crew transportation systems,” adding that “Orion is currently being developed under a contract with NASA but it’s also attracted quite a bit of interest from other customers. It’s been interesting to see who has expressed an interest in perhaps utilizing the same design.”

Reightler said Lockheed Martin is waiting to see how much commercial crew money Congress ultimately |approves.

“When the appropriations bill comes and they make decisions about how much money really will be put forward to do various things, that will kind of direct your efforts as well. It could be a completely different picture from what we see today,” he told Space News.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said the agency is evaluating the number of commercial crew providers the agency could sustain with funding levels included in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.

“I think four is the goal, and we are looking at whether we can fund four or whether it makes sense to fund some lesser number,” she said in an Oct. 21 interview in Las Cruces. “One of the things we’re interested in is making sure that we keep competition in the system. Does that require four? Maybe not, but we’re not going to go down to one.”