SpaceX, Boeing Among NASA Commercial Crew Development Winners
[Satellite News 04-19-11] NASA has distributed $269 million to four U.S. commercial launch companies as part of the Obama administration’s National Space Policy to develop domestic alternatives to send astronauts to orbit, the agency announced in an April 18 press conference.
Of the 22 proposals received by NASA for the commercial crew development program, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp., Blue Origin and Boeing were selected to receive program awards. Starting in May, the federal financing will cover a year of development and research work. NASA said the award winners would be paid as they meet milestones outlined in their proposals.
The program was developed to take over the workload for the retiring space shuttle program, which will be retired before the end of the year. Until an alternative is developed, the United States will have to rely on Russian launchers, which are priced at $50 million per seat. NASA Program Director Philip McAlister said the commercial crew development program expects to yield results by 2015, depending on future financing available to NASA and the performance of the contract winners.
“While 2015 is our most realistic time frame, we are hopefully going to make a lot of progress over this next year so we can get there as soon as we can,” McAlister said during the press conference.
Boeing received the largest share of the commercial crew development program award, receiving $92.3 million to design a space capsule. Sierra Nevada received $80 million to fund the development of a small space plane capable of reaching low-Earth orbit. Blue Origin, a private space company established by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, also will receive $22 million to work on a space capsule design.
SpaceX, which is already under NASA’s COTS contract to carry cargo to the International Space Station, will receive $75 million to make its Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket and Dragon capsule suitable for manned missions. McAlister said SpaceX was selected due to the company’s pair of successful Falcon 9 launches in 2010 as well as its test of its Dragon capsule in December.
The award makes SpaceX the only federally funded rocket-based provider under the NASA commercial crew development program, however, McAlister said a fifth launch company could be selected to participate in the program — but would not receive any funding.
NASA said it rejected a proposal from Alliant Techsystems (ATK) to develop a commercial version of the Ares 1 rocket at a lower cost than current Atlas 5 services. The original Ares 1 design was part of NASA’s own program to keep U.S. manned space missions to the moon exclusive to NASA. The Ares 1 program was scrapped by the Obama administration in 2010 in favor of investing $6 billion during the span of five years to commercial space companies.
The move caused heated debate in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) was one of the plan’s most vocal critics due to the fact that a large number of NASA’s Ares development work took place in her state. “While I know that commercial companies could eventually become successful, I do not feel that the information available justifies such a large investment of federal dollars this year for commercial vehicles,” Hutchison said during hearings to approve the 2011 National Space Policy.
Now that the plan has been approved and awards are being issued, NASA’s commercial crew development award program is set to expand dramatically. NASA awarded $50 million in its first round of financing for commercial crew development in 2010. While this year’s award total multiplied that figure by five, next fiscal year’s budget calls for $850 million in funding.
“This is a strategy that is still in development,” McAlister said. “The second round of this development award program will be a huge step for NASA. We will hold a competition to provide crew transportation services, which will be open to all companies, not just the ones that received money in the current round. We’re still working on details of how that competition would be set up.”