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June 08, 2012

Congress, NASA cut a 2.5 Deal on Commercial Manned Spacecraft Development

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor


On the heels of a successful commercial cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA and Congress have come to terms on how the agency will move forward in its commercial spacecraft development effort. The Commercial Crew program currently has four funded participants, but will down select to 2.5 companies in its next round. Republicans wanted to force NASA to go with either a sole source vendor or a "leader/follower" combination under the banner of saving money.

Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) says he has reached an understanding with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, according to a statement issued by his office on Tuesday, June 5. Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP), the latest round of commercial spacecraft development, will be allowed to proceed under a Space Act Agreement procurement structure with funding at or near a Senate-proposed amount of around $513 million in FY 2013. 

NASA says it will award two full and one partial CCiCAP awards this summer, rather than going with funding a notational three or more vendors.   It will also make sure participating vendors are financially viable before providing funding and ensure the government will have the first right of refusal to buy property developed under Commercial Crew "at a price that reflects the taxpayers' existing investment in its development." Finally, after CCiCAP, NASA will fund (i.e. buy) flights to the International Space Station (ISS) and other Low Earth Orbit (LEO) destinations using standard FAR-based certifications and service contracts.

Wolf's statement doesn't change a lot from what NASA originally intended. The agency has planned to support three companies in CCiCAP before down selecting to two companies that could supply flights to ISS. NASA had also planned to use FAR-based contracting to buy seats for flights to the space station in the final phase of procurement. It would be using FAR-based contracting for CCiCAP, but Congress isn't providing enough money to go that route, according to the agency.

Over the past year, Republicans in Congress have been trying to overtly push the agency into selecting a single vendor or a lead vendor and a backup. Officially, the line has been that going with a sole source or two vendors would "save money" -- a baffling reason, given NASA's reasoning to have as many vendors as possible participating is to foster competition and innovation.   If you believe in conspiracies, the actual reason is behind-the-scenes lobbying by incumbent aerospace companies to lock out upstart SpaceX (News - Alert) from getting more business. 

In CCiCAP, NASA wants all vendors to be able to build a manned spacecraft and safely/successfully launch it into orbit with a docking at the International Space Station (ISS), preferable at a cost lower than the over $60 million per seat paid to Russia for flights on its Soyuz vehicle.

SpaceX's successfully commercial cargo run to ISS made them the effective lead vendor for CCiCAP, since they have successfully launched two Falcon 9 rocket/Dragon spacecraft into space. Boeing's CTS (News - Alert)-100 spacecraft has yet to fly in an unmanned test flight on a ULA Atlas V and there are concerns about the current high cost of the Atlas V rocket expressed by numerous parties -- most importantly, by Boeing (News - Alert)

This leaves an open slot for a third company to move to the next round. Blue Origin offers another capsule design to initially fly on the ULA Atlas V -- but then we're back to price per flight.   Blue Origin plans to use its own rockets for its capsule in the future, but the secretive company has yet to divulge a timetable when it would be able to start testing flight hardware.  

Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser also has to be under consideration. Unlike Boeing, Blue Origin and SpaceX's capsule offerings, the Dream Chaser is a space plane style configuration. Dream Chaser would be launched to orbit on an Atlas V or other rocket and return to earth like the space shuttle in a gliding flight, putting much lower g-forces on occupants and crew during reentry before landing on a conventional runway. 




Edited by Brooke Neuman



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