Also working with government funds are Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX), on three different commercial crew vehicles intended to take astronauts to the ISS. Building on the George W. Bush-administration commercial cargo program that will start delivering supplies to the space station this fall, the Obama administration is using federal funds as seed money for what it hopes will one day be a low-Earth-orbit economy.
In August, the U.S. government committed $1.1 billion in funding for the latest round of commercial crew vehicles—$460 million for Boeing's CST-100 and $440 million for the SpaceX Dragon, both of which are capsules. Another $212.5 million will support development of Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser lifting body. The smaller amount for the most ambitious design reflects pressure from Congress to minimize the up-front development expense, and recognizes the higher degree of development risk in the Dream Chaser.
“There's a lot more complexity with a winged vehicle, so our logic was 'why don't we let them try to buy down some of that complexity first and see how well that goes,'” says Gerstenmaier. “If I didn't think they had a chance of actually competing in the end, being in the potential finalists, we wouldn't have kept them in this phase.”
As with earlier commercial crew competitions, all of the money in the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) phase will be spent under Space Act agreements, which are less restrictive than traditional U.S. government procurements under the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). To address safety concerns growing out of reduced government oversight, NASA will also conduct a two-phase human-rating competition designed to deliver the necessary design data to agency safety engineers in parallel with vehicle development.
“If NASA were to delay certification activities, the development of industry's capabilities could eventually reach the point where any changes necessary to meet NASA requirements would likely not be technically feasible or affordable, potentially extending our reliance on foreign systems,” NASA states in a white paper on its commercial crew procurement plans.
The safety competition's 15-month first phase, expected to result in multiple $10 million awards in February 2013, is open to all comers. In addition to the three CCiCap winners, other potential bidders for the safety-review funding include ATK Aerospace Systems, Blue Origin and Excalibur Almaz. ATK is working with Astrium to build a big launch vehicle named Liberty, using a solid-fuel first stage based on the Constellation Ares I crew launch vehicle in the first-stage position, with an Ariane 5 main stage as the new vehicle's upper stage. Riding atop it would be a composite version of the aluminum capsule that was developed at NASA's Langley Research Center.
ATK lost out in the CCiCap bidding, but may still go ahead with the Liberty development without government seed money (see p. 44). Blue Origin, the secretive startup endowed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, did not enter the CCiCap competition, and has apparently decided to continue developing its orbital commercial crew vehicle with its own funds. If that is the case, it will need to enter the safety-review competition if it wants to fly NASA crews in the future. The same is true of Excalibur Almaz, a startup based on the Isle of Man that has bought surplus Soviet military crew vehicles with an eye to converting them to commercial operations (see p. 50).
None of the vehicles in development will come close to matching the unique capabilities of the space shuttle, with its reusability, 24,400-kg (53,680-lb.) payload to low Earth orbit, airlock for spacewalks and Canadian-built robotic arm. And despite NASA's effort to stiffen its insight under the Space Act agreements with what Gerstenmeier calls a “hybrid” approach to human safety, critics worry that the next vehicle will not be much safer than the shuttle, which cost 14 lives during 135 flights over 30 years of operation.
Joseph Dyer, chairman of the independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, calls the parallel development/certification approach a “workaround” that is unlikely to produce the desired safety levels, particularly as uncertain budgets generate downward pressure on safety spending.