WASHINGTON — NASA plans to solicit proposals from industry for a third round of funded agreements aimed at nurturing development of commercial astronaut taxis as early as this September, with awards anticipated in May of next year, according to agency officials.
Douglas Cooke, head of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, said the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) 3 agreements would fund end-to-end designs of transportation systems to ferry astronauts and private passengers in low Earth orbit, a capability NASA is counting on to provide domestic access to the international space station following retirement of the agency’s space shuttle fleet later this year.
Speaking during an April 26 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s exploration subcommittee, Cooke said CCDev 3 would fund industry proposals through critical design review, a development milestone after which hardware elements typically enter production. Ultimately, he said, the agency hopes the market will support multiple providers to compete for NASA cargo and crew transportation services.
“We will have a contract for [commercial crew transportation] services down the road,” Cooke said, adding that NASA’s ability to fund multiple firms “will be a factor of what’s proposed and how much money we’ve got, to some degree.”
To date, NASA has spent or committed a combined $320 million under two previous CCDev rounds to a mix of established and emerging space companies seeking to mature technologies in support of the agency’s commercial space transportation goals. In April NASA awarded $270 million in CCDev 2 agreements to four U.S. firms developing crew-carrying orbital spacecraft. NASA received 22 CCDev 2 proposals from industry.
Of the four CCDev 2 winners, Chicago-based Boeing Co. landed the largest award, $92.3 million, to refine the design of its CST-100 crew capsule. The other winners are: Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin, $22 million; Sparks, Nev.-based Sierra Nevada Corp., $80 million; and Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (), $75 million.
If U.S. lawmakers approve the 2012 budget blueprint President Barack Obama sent to Congress in February, NASA could spend up to $850 million on CCDev 3 next year.
When NASA unveiled plans to outsource orbital crew transportation services in the 2011 budget request delivered to Congress last year, the agency proposed spending $6 billion over five years — enough to fund three or four providers, agency officials said at the time. But with the White House under pressure to reduce the federal deficit, spending for privately developed space taxis could take a hit in the coming years.
Phil McAlister, commercial crew program lead at NASA headquarters here, said the agency would prefer to contract with more than one crew-service provider to maintain competition and keep costs low.
“If the market can support more than one [provider], we think that’ll be in the best interest of NASA and the U.S. taxpayer, the industry and customers,” McAlister said during an April 18 conference call with reporters in which NASA announced the winners of the CCDev 2 competition. “Hopefully, as this market matures, there will be sufficient business for more than one provider and we’ll just have to see how that plays out as we go forward.”
In the meantime, NASA is busy formulating an acquisition strategy for the CCDev 3 awards, though Cooke said it remains unclear whether CCDev 3 will utilize the same acquisition model used to fund other commercial space initiatives. Under the first two rounds of CCDev awards, winners signed NASA Space Act agreements — fixed-price arrangements that are not subject to cumbersome federal acquisition regulations. That could change under CCDev 3.
“We don’t know if it’s going to be a Space Act [agreement] specifically,” Cooke said during the NASA Advisory Council meeting. However, as was the case in the first two rounds of CCDev awards, Cooke said, NASA expects participants to put skin in the game. “We do want co-investment,” he said.