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Dragon capsule
The SpaceX Dragon capsule that flew in space in December was on display in Washington last week, not far from where industry and government leaders were talking about the future of commercial crew. (credit: J. Foust)

Commercial crew and NASA’s tipping point


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Later today the White House will release its budget proposal for fiscal year 2012, including its plans for NASA. That release is likely to be far less controversial than the release of its 2011 budget proposal just over a year ago, in which the administration proposed cancelling all of Constellation and replacing it with technology development efforts and an initiative to develop commercial crew transportation systems. That generated a long, often vociferous debate (at least by space policy standards) about the future direction of the agency, culminating with the passage of the NASA Authorization Act that put into law much, but not all, of what the administration was seeking.

Developments both in government and in the private sector suggest commercial crew is increasingly not a question of if it will exist, but how big of a program it will be and how soon it can field systems.

This time around no one is expecting similar radical changes for NASA. Instead, the 2012 budget proposal offers the agency an opportunity to further cement the foundation for those new programs, and grapple with the many challenges associated with them, from concerns about the ability of NASA to build a heavy-lift vehicle (see “Can NASA develop a heavy-lift rocket?”, The Space Review, January 17, 2011) to cost overruns on high-profile programs like the James Webb Space Telescope, to broader challenges of carrying out programs on a budget that will be, at best, frozen at 2011 levels. (Further complicating that last point is that NASA, like the rest of the federal government, still doesn’t have a final 2011 budget, four and a half months after the fiscal year began.)

Another high profile program likely to be scrutinized in the budget proposal is the agency’s commercial crew development efforts, a topic that was one of the flash points of last year’s budget and policy debate. This time around, though, the debate may very well be different. Last year the question was whether there should be a commercial crew development program at all, one that was answered by its inclusion in the authorization act, although at lower funding levels than the administration’s request. Now, though, developments both in government and in the private sector suggest commercial crew is increasingly not a question of if it will exist, but how big of a program it will be and how soon it can field systems.

Commercial readiness

One of the key issues of last year’s debate was the readiness of commercial providers to develop crew transportation systems, something that previously had been done only as government programs with very different contracting relationships with aerospace firms. Those worries were at least partially ameliorated with the successful demonstration flight in December of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, developed to carry cargo but intended to eventually carry crew as well (see “2010: the year commercial human spaceflight made contact”, The Space Review, December 13, 2010).

“The December 8th flight of the Falcon 9/Dragon, for us, demonstrated that the United States commercial sector is prepared to meet the needs of NASA to carry crew to orbit,” said Tim Hughes, vice president and chief counsel of SpaceX, during a panel session at the 14th Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington last week. Such a system could carry astronauts, he said, at less than half the cost of what Russia is currently charging for seats on Soyuz spacecraft.

SpaceX has submitted a proposal for NASA’s second round of Commercial Crew Development awards (known as CCDev-2) to work on what Hughes called the “long pole in the tent” for a commercial crew capability, a launch escape system. If funded, he said that “ideally” the company could have an operational crew capability within three years.

“The December 8th flight of the Falcon 9/Dragon, for us, demonstrated that the United States commercial sector is prepared to meet the needs of NASA to carry crew to orbit,” said SpaceX’s Hughes

SpaceX is hardly the only company showing an interest in commercial crew development. Several other companies have been developing concepts for spacecraft and/or launch vehicles, either under the first round of CCDev awards made last year or in CCDev-2 proposals now being evaluated by NASA. That interest was evidenced by the standing room only crowd that gathered to attend the panel, which also featured representatives of Boeing, Orbital Sciences Corporation, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and United Launch Alliance (ULA). “I think a few years ago we would have been talking to ourselves,” said Mark Sirangelo, chairman of Sierra Nevada Space Systems.

Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and ULA all received first-round CCDev awards last year, and have either completed or are wrapping up work associated with those awards. That work has ranged from completing a system definition review by Boeing of its CST-100 capsule, along with associated subsystem development, to drop tests by Sierra Nevada of a subscale model of its Dream Chaser vehicle, to ULA’s work simulating launch failures to test an emergency detection system critical to human-rating its launch vehicles. (ULA also simulated the ascent profile of its Atlas 5 402 rocket using the centrifuge at the NASTAR Center near Philadelphia, with former astronaut Jeff Ashby testing his ability to operate a notional vehicle at accelerations of up to 4 g.)

Orbital, currently developing the Cygnus cargo vehicle for servicing the ISS, jumped into the commercial crew sector in December when it announced it had submitted a CCDev-2 proposal for a lifting body vehicle subsequently named Prometheus. Frank Culbertson, senior vice president at Orbital, said Prometheus is based on design work the company did on NASA’s Orbital Space Plane program in the early 2000s. “We think it’s going to be a very exciting vehicle for NASA to evaluate and eventually procure,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest recent sign of commercial interest in crew transportation development, though, took place last week when ATK announced it had submitted its own CCDev-2 proposal for a new launch vehicle it called Liberty. The vehicle, strikingly similar to the now-cancelled Ares 1, uses the same five-segment solid rocket booster for its first stage. However, the Boeing-built Ares 1 second stage, powered by a J-2X engine, has been replaced by a version of the Ariane 5 core stage, provided by ATK’s partner on the project, EADS Astrium. The Liberty would be able to put to up 20,000 kilograms into an ISS orbit, enough to handle any of the crewed vehicle concepts under study.

ATK and Astrium played up the heritage and reliability of Liberty’s components while also claiming the vehicle would be cost effective compared to unnamed alternatives. “We will provide unmatched payload performance at a fraction of the cost, and we will launch it from the Kennedy Space Center using facilities that have already been built,” said Charlie Precourt, vice president and general manager of ATK Space Launch Systems, in a statement announcing the Liberty proposal. “This approach allows NASA to utilize the investments that have already been made in our nation's ground infrastructure and propulsion systems for the Space Exploration Program.”

ATK did not present at the FAA conference last week, but its presence was felt. In his presentation about the CST-100 a day after the ATK announcement, Boeing’s John Elbon included an illustration of the Liberty vehicle alongside those of the Atlas 5, Delta 4, and Falcon 9 on a slide emphasizing the capsule’s compatibility with various launch systems.

Bolden at FAA conference
NASA administrator Charles Bolden talks about his agency’s dependence on commercial providers in a speech at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference last week. (credit: J. Foust)

Government willingness

Some in industry want to accelerate the pace of commercial crew development. “I think we need to stretch our goals and have commercial crew services operating by 2014,” said Michael Gass, CEO of ULA, in a luncheon speech at the FAA conference. That goal would be up to two years earlier than NASA’s current projections. He said his urgency came from the need to close the gap in US human access to space with the retirement of the shuttle, forcing NASA to buy seats from Russia, which he called an “embarrassment” for the country. “The commercial crew program should be executed with a sense of urgency, one that the aerospace industry has not seen in decades.”

“I think we need to stretch our goals and have commercial crew services operating by 2014,” said Michael Gass, CEO of ULA.

Funding for commercial crew, though, does not match that sense of urgency. While Congress has yet to pass a final 2011 appropriations bill, last year’s authorization act included $312 million for commercial crew in 2011 and $500 million each for 2012 and 2013. That’s far less than the $3.3 billion that the administration had projected for the program in the same three-year period, but Congressional supporters of the agency have indicated, at least informally, that the full $5.8 billion projected for the program would be made available over six years instead of the original five.

If that money doesn’t materialize, though, there could be issues for the commercial crew program. “There are infinite variations” of potential future budgets that make it difficult for NASA to project just how many providers it will be able to support the development of, said Phil McAlister, who is leading the planning for commercial crew program at NASA headquarters, during another panel at the FAA conference. “We would probably have to revisit the fundamental program objectives” that if the $500-million level was extended beyond 2013, he said. “I’m not saying we would change them, but we would revisit the program objectives.”

Drumming up support for initiatives like commercial crew is one of the objectives of a new group. A coalition of fiscal conservatives and free-market advocates unveiled the Competitive Space Task Force last week to convince conservative members of Congress to support the commercial space initiatives of an administration they are usually at ideological odds with. “We’re here to try and change the conversation,” Rand Simberg, representing the Competitive Enterprise Institute and chairing the task force, said in a Capitol Hill press conference Tuesday.

The task force doesn’t have any specific activities planned yet—they said at last week’s briefing that they were awaiting details of the administration’s 2012 budget proposal—but they indicated they wanted to make clear to conservatives that the administration’s commercial crew initiative made better sense than government-run programs and did not, as some critics claimed, jeopardize national security or prestige. “That’s what this effort is all about, is to add to our ability to do space, not subtract from our ability to do space,” said former congressman Bob Walker.

That’s a point companies like SpaceX have also been trying to make. “While this was a significant achievement for SpaceX as a company, we think it’s actually more significant as an achievement for the US taxpayer,” Hughes said at the FAA conference. He noted the total cost to SpaceX to develop both the Falcon 9 and Dragon was less than $600 million; total company expenditures since its inception in 2002 was $800 million. “When you compare this burn rate relative to other government programs, there is a rather remarkable divide.”

NASA leadership has also been making a big push in recent weeks to show its support for commercial crew programs. Earlier this month deputy administrator Lori Garver visited Bigelow Aerospace in Nevada and Sierra Nevada in Colorado, while administrator Charles Bolden witnessed a test firing at NASA’s Stennis Space Center last week of the AJ-26 engines that will power Orbital’s Taurus 2 rocket.

“We are irrevocably, irretrievably, irreconcilably beyond the tipping point,” said Bolden. “We can’t turn around and go back.”

Bolden also made a surprise appearance at the FAA conference, making a brief speech Wednesday morning where he again emphasized the importance of, and NASA’s commitment to, commercial crew providers. “We cannot survive without you,” he said. “I can’t tell you any stronger. We are big fans of commercial, we are huge fans of commercial space.”

“When I retire the space shuttle… that’s it for NASA access to low Earth orbit,” he said. NASA would not compete with commercial providers after that for transporting crews to low Earth orbit, despite Congress authorizing development of the Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle as a government alternative to commercial providers. “There’s got to be two people in the ring to have a fight. I’m not in the ring for access to low Earth orbit,” he said. “We explore.”

Today’s release of the 2012 budget proposal will kick off a new round of debate about NASA priorities, including for commercial crew; it will also take place in an odd atmosphere where Congress is still working on a final 2011 budget. A bill released late Friday by the House Appropriations Committee would cut $579 million from the agency’s original $19-billion budget request, but would give NASA some flexibility to allocate funding within agency accounts.

Despite that debate, Bolden hinted that the debate over commercial crew had already passed. Earlier in the FAA conference, George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, said that while he was optimistic about the prospects of commercial spaceflight, “I’m not sure yet we’re at the tipping point today, but we’re getting tantalizingly close.”

Bolden, in his comments, disagreed with that assessment. “For NASA, that tipping point has long since passed,” he said. “We are irrevocably, irretrievably, irreconcilably beyond the tipping point. We can’t turn around and go back.”


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