August 06, 2012
Frank Morring, Jr. Washingtonand Guy Norris Atlanta
NASA is keeping its technical bases covered in the selection of Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada for serious government money to help develop a commercial alternative to Russia's Soyuz for launching astronauts.
Chosen to negotiate Space Act agreements for the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) seed-money effort, the three companies are taking widely different approaches to transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.
And the division of more than $1.1 billion in federal funds over the next two years is part of a “two-and-a-half” formula worked out with lawmakers worried about wasting money by stretching development competition for too long. And this funding mechanism will probably keep all three in the running long enough to bid on the next round. That will be for traditional federal acquisition contracts aimed at initial crew transport operations in 2017, with demonstration flights “by the middle of the decade.” Under the Space Act agreements, the companies will add their own funds to the government money.
Boeing has the simplest vehicle—a battery-powered capsule dubbed CST-100 that would be launched on an Atlas V and return to Earth on dry land under parachutes and cushioned by airbags on touchdown. It will receive $460 million over the base period of the Space Act agreement.
SpaceX has already sent its Dragon cargo-carrier to the ISS on its Falcon 9 launch vehicle (AW&ST June 4, p. 36). It will use its $440 million in CCiCap funds to human-rate the capsule, which parachutes to a water landing.
Sierra Nevada has the most ambitious technology, a lifting-body spaceplane that takes off on an Atlas V and glides back to a runway landing. But under the “two-and-a-half” deal brokered by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the appropriations panel that funds NASA, the “Dream Chaser” craft will receive only $212.5 million for additional development. Still, that is almost twice what NASA already has put toward the highly reusable concept, and like the other two winners the company has commercial plans that go beyond trips to the ISS (AW&ST July 2, p. 37).
“We're counting on the creativity of industry to provide the next generation of transportation to low Earth orbit and expand human presence, making space accessible and open for business,” says William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human operations and exploration, who selected the three companies.