Transformational Space Corp. (t/Space), a company founded in response to the new U.S. vision for space exploration, thinks it can help NASA close the gap between retiring the space shuttle fleet and fielding a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) to carry astronauts beyond Earth’s orbit.

The Reston, Va.-based company already already convinced NASA to give it $6 million in exchange for advice on how the U.S. space agency can reach beyond the traditional aerospace industry to answer a presidential call to return to the Moon by 2020. Now t/Space is hoping to convince NASA to part with $400 million in exchange for an Earth-to-orbit crew transfer vehicle, which company executives say they can have ready in 2008.

NASA’s current plan calls for retiring the space shuttle by the end of 2010 and flying the CEV with humans on board for the first time in 2014. However, NASA’s new administrator, Mike Griffin, has called the potential four-year gap between shuttle and CEV unacceptable and vowed to take steps to close or at least minimize it.

The t/Space team thinks it can help NASA avoid a gap altogether and wants a chance to prove it. The t/Space team insists that is no hollow promise, and points to the quality of the people on their team, which includes famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan, who made history in 2004 as the builder of the first privately financed piloted spacecraft, and Brett Alexander, a former official with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy who helped shape the development of the new vision President George W. Bush gave NASA last year for future exploration.

Transformational Space is the brainchild of serial space entrepreneurs David Gump and Gary Hudson, who respectively serve as the company’s president and chief designer. The pair started the company in early 2004 to respond to a NASA call for ideas on how it might go about returning to the Moon in preparation for human missions to Mars and beyond.

In September, NASA awarded t/Space and seven other companies six-month contracts to develop comprehensive plans for renewed human lunar exploration, including development of the CEV. NASA recently awarded t/Space a $3 million, six-month extension that will keep the company busy until this September. Between now and then, t/Space would like to see NASA structure a competition that would allow companies to bid for a fix-priced contract to design and build an Earth-to- orbit crew transfer system that can be ready before the CEV.

Under the t/Space plan, teams led by Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman would still build the CEV, but the vehicle would be designed solely to transport astronauts between Earth orbit and the Moon. The job of getting astronauts up to their Moon-bound CEV would fall to t/Space and an air-launched four-person capsule they have dubbed the Crew Transfer Vehicle, or CXV. The projected recurring cost of the service is $20 million per flight.

Alexander, hired earlier this year as t/Space’s vice president of government relations, said that the overall lunar exploration approach, or architecture, that t/Space has been studying under its $6 million Concept Exploration and Refinement contract, envisions a reusable CEV that stays in space, thus avoiding the complication of designing a re-entry system, and launches unmanned, thus saving the expense of human rating an Atlas 5, Delta 4 or other powerful launcher.

“We understand NASA is not buying the entire architecture at this point,” Alexander said. “What we are interested in talking to them about is the crew transfer vehicle, just the Earth-to-orbit piece of it. We are complimentary to any CEV that gets developed. We can put people into orbit, whether it’s the Lockheed Martin version or the Boeing-Northrop version, whatever it is, they can launch it unmanned and they don’t have to human rate an [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle].”

There is at least some interest from CEV contender Lockheed Martin in the t/Space approach. Cleon Lacefield, Lockheed Martin vice president and CEV program manager, said in a May 3 interview they have a cooperative relationship with t/Space and are poised to take advantage of the CXV system should it come to pass.

The CXV, Gump and Alexander said, also could be used to ferry four to six astronauts to and from the international space station and serve as a crew lifeboat, solving one of NASA’s looming problems without compromising the CEV’s lunar transport mission.

The CXV, as t/Space envisions it, would be a crewed capsule that derives its shape not from NASA’s Mercury, Gemini or Apollo capsules, but from the first U.S. spy satellite program, Discover/Corona, which relied on washtub-sized ballistic capsules to return exposed film to Earth for processing. Alexander said the Discover/Corona capsule design racked up more than 400 re-entries over two decades of use.

The structure of the CXV capsule would be designed and built by Rutan’s Scaled Composites, the Mojave, Calif.-based company that designed and built SpaceShipOne, the world’s first private-financed piloted spacecraft, for roughly $25 million.

The CXV would be attached to its booster and carried aloft under the belly of a large carrier aircraft to an altitude of 7,600 meters for release and launch — an approach t/Space thinks has significant safety advantages over a pad launch in the event of a booster failure.

“You are up high enough where you can separate and parachute down under almost any circumstance,” Gump said. “W hereas with an abort on the pad you have a split second to release a lot of energy, hopefully in the right direction, to get you up high enough for the chutes to deploy. It’s much more challenging.”

The CXV would be designed to make a parachute landing into the water and be recovered for reuse, according to Gump, “with minimal refurbishment.”

The CXV booster would be a more powerful version of the QuickReach booster that t/Space teammate AirLaunch LLC is developing for the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s under its operationally responsive spacelift program.

“We think we are credible as a quicker-paced alternative in part because there is hardware already being constructed by Air Launch under the DARPA/Air Force Falcon contract,” Gump said.

AirLaunch, a Reno, Nev.-based company founded by t/Space chief designer Hudson, has been under contract to DARPA and the Air Force since 2003, developing a liquid oxygen and propane-fueled air-launched booster designed to deliver 900 kilograms of payload to an altitude of 200 kilometers.

AirLaunch currently has a $13 million contract and is competing against New Orleans-based Lockheed Martin Michoud Operations, Microcosm and Space Exploration Technologies, both of El Segundo, Calif., for additional Pentagon funding this fall that would allow it to proceed to a planned 2007 demonstration of its low-cost launch system.

Human rating a more powerful version of QuickReach booster, Gump said, would be much less expensive than human rating an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle.

“It’s a very simple system and because it is so inexpensive it can be tested a lot,” Gump said. “The problem with man rating $150 million [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles] is after they are modified, how many test flights are you going to be able to pay for? “

Alexander, who worked as a senior policy analyst on space issues in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy until January, said the estimated cost of human rating an Atlas 5 or Delta 4 is about $1 billion.

If NASA has any qualms about putting astronaut safety in the hands of a maverick like Rutan, Gump and Alexander said the agency need not worry. For starters, no one has ever died flying any of Rutan’s envelope-pushing vehicles, and the CXV’s first crew members will be t/Space employees not NASA astronauts.

“We are planning to operate this with t/Space crew before allowing a NASA crew to launch,” Alexander said. “That has always been part of the plan. We are not going to fly it until we think it is safe.”

The t/Space team thinks it can build the CXV, develop a more powerful version of the QuickReach booster, modify a 747 and conduct a test program that included the first piloted space shot for $400 million — a sum, Gump and Alexander said, NASA can easily afford.

NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems, Craig Steidle, has talked publicly about funding in parallel to the main CEV effort a so-called non traditional approach intended to yield a limited Earth-to-orbit human transport system as early as the end of 2008.

The t/Space team would like to see NASA follow through with the non-traditional approach and structure a competition for a fixed-price contract that would reward companies for delivering hardware, not view graphs and status reports.

NASA’s CEV acquisition plans, however, have been less clear since Griffin started talking about accelerating the program. Gump and Alexander said even if NASA takes steps to speed up the development of CEV, t/Space still has a valuable role to play.

“The only way you get money to speed things up is by doing the downselect a lot sooner,” Gump said. “If you do it a lot sooner you have a much shorter period of competition between the two majors. But with the nontraditional approach, you will have an actual hardware development going forward in competition with the remaining major prime. I think that’s of extreme value to NASA, to have sustained competition if they have to do an early downselect.”

Gump and Alexander also were very clear that they want NASA, not the capital markets, to fund the development. Gump said putting together a business plan and raising capital could take a couple of years and significantly drive up the ultimate price of the service to NASA once a competitive return for investors is taken into account.

But not everybody who would like to sell crew and cargo services to NASA agrees that private capital would do more harm than good. A senior official with one company that has been studying CEV concepts for NASA said the agency ought to promise to buy services that meet its specifications and then let the market decide which company has what it takes to win that business.

If the CXV approach pans out by the end of this decade, NASA can focus its CEV development funds on a system optimized for travel between Earth orbit and the surface of the Moon.

“One thing NASA should be cautious about right now is repeating the mistake it made with the shuttle in trying to be all things to all people. With the new desire to speed up the CEV so that it is both a lunar vehicle and an Earth-to-orbit-service-the-space-station vehicle, they’re walking a slippery slope,” Gump said. “We provide a safety valve. We are focused on doing one thing – getting from the surface to [low-Earth orbit] in a way that is safe and cost effective.”

t/Space has the weight of a presidential commission on their side. The Moon, Mars and Beyond Commission, headed by former U.S. Air Force Secretary Edward “Pete” Aldridge, reported back to Bush last year that private industry must have a “far larger presence in space operations with the specific goal of allowing private industry to assume the primary role of providing services to NASA, and most immediately in accessing low-Earth orbit.”

“There is an alignment now of the president’s policy, the direction of the Aldridge commission, a willingness on NASA’s part and a recognition by Congress that we are not going to get there with business as usual,” Alexander said. “It really is a historic moment.”