Sierra Nevada, SpaceX Get Commercial Crew Extensions from NASA

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WASHINGTON — NASA extended Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreements with Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) and SpaceX, giving the companies more time, but no more money, to finish spacecraft development work awarded more than two years ago.

Both CCiCap awards, made in August 2012, were set to expire March 31. Sierra Nevada’s pact was extended for a year, while SpaceX’s was extended through Dec. 31. This is the second time NASA has extended these deals in as many years. They were originally to expire in August 2014.

Sierra Nevada exited the commercial crew race in September after its Dream Chaser spaceplane failed to garner a share of the $6.8 billion NASA split between SpaceX and Boeing for Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contracts that could result in paid astronaut flights to and from the International Space Station as soon as late 2017. However, Sierra Nevada has not given up on finding other customers for Dream Chaser. The Louisville, Colorado-based company is going after one of the Commercial Resupply Services 2 contracts NASA intends to award in June for ISS cargo runs starting in 2018.

Sierra Nevada issued a press release March 23 announcing its CCiCap extension, which gives a year to complete a new, unfunded milestone that would further mature the Dream Chaser design. Neither NASA nor SpaceX publicly announced SpaceX’s extension, which was approved Feb. 27.

SNC Dream Chaser
SNC’s Dream Chaser. Credit: SNC video capture

SpaceX was given nine more months to finish a structural qualification test for its Dragon V2 space capsule, two tests of the craft’s launch abort system, and the ship’s critical design review.
Dragon’s launch abort system will propel astronauts to safety in the event of a launch mishap. Under the Hawthorne, California-based company’s CCiCap agreement, the still-unscheduled tests of that critical safety system are worth a combined $60 million. At the time of the CCiCap award, SpaceX thought it could finish both abort tests by April 2014.

The first of SpaceX’s two launch-abort tests would take place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Dragon would be mounted to a mock-up Falcon 9 rocket and attempt to boost itself away from the pad using its hydrazine-fueled SuperDraco thrusters.

SpaceX would attempt to repeat the feat at altitude in a subsequent test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, using a live Falcon 9. The rocket’s ascent will create aerodynamic forces that make it more difficult for Dragon to peel itself away from the launch vehicle.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer, said March 17 the pad abort test would take place “in just a couple of weeks.” She did not mention the in-flight abort test.

SpaceX spokesman John Taylor declined to comment for this story.

In a preliminary step toward the first test, SpaceX in March test-fired a pair of SuperDracos at its McGregor, Texas, rocket test facility, programming the thrusters to burn for six seconds and throttle at the rate required to boost a capsule away from the company’s Falcon 9 V 1.1 rocket.

Sierra Nevada, meanwhile, will now start working toward a new CCiCap milestone called Design Analysis Cycle-6 Closeout Review. The review is intended to bring the Dream Chaser design to a level of maturity somewhere between the programmatic benchmarks of preliminary design review and critical design review, the company said. Critical design review is traditionally the final engineering review before construction begins on flight hardware.

Sierra Nevada will also get more time to complete a second Dream Chaser drop test at Edwards Air Force Base in California, which under a contract extension signed last year was supposed to be completed in April. In a March 17 press conference here, Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada corporate vice president and space systems head, said the second Dream Chaser drop test is scheduled for later this year. Sirangelo took questions from the press after unveiling details of SNC’s plans to adapt Dream Chaser for cargo-hauling duty in a bid to capture NASA commercial cargo funding now up for grabs.

Boeing was the first, and so far only, company to complete its CCiCap work for NASA. Boeing received more CCiCap funding than either SpaceX or SNC and completed its final milestone for that program last summer prior to netting a $4.2 billion follow-on Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract in September. SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract is worth $2.6 billion.