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With its CCiCap award, SpaceX believed it could fly the first crewed Dragon mission by the end of 2015. (credit: SpaceX)

Keeping focused on commercial crew


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More than two and a half years after its introduction as part of the sweeping changes to NASA proposed by the Obama Administration, the agency’s commercial crew program remains one of its most polarizing initiatives. For some, the effort to stimulate the commercial development of vehicles that can carry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, as well as for commercial applications like space tourism and research, is a logical step forward for space commercialization that also enables NASA to devote more resources to exploration efforts. For others, the program wastes money by giving funds to too many companies, including those with little or no experience in human spaceflight, using non-standard approaches that don’t provide the same level of control as a conventional contract, with little hope of additional use of these systems beyond NASA’s own limited needs.

“This is all leading to a plan that gets us to a flight to the ISS with people on board by the end of 2015,” said SpaceX’s Reisman.

Despite that debate, the commercial crew effort continues, with the award last month of three funded Space Act Agreements to Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and SpaceX for the next phase of the program, called Commercial Crew Integrated Capability, or CCiCap (see “Commercial crew’s winners and losers”, The Space Review, August 6, 2012). In the six weeks since those awards, those companies have been busy starting work on them, including achieving some of the early milestones in those agreements. Those efforts, though, have not eliminated the concerns of some, including those worried about a mismatch between system development and safety requirements.

The winners get to work

At a panel session on NASA’s commercial crew and cargo programs at the AIAA Space 2012 conference last Thursday in Pasadena, California, representatives of the three companies that won CCiCap awards expressed optimism that, with the agreements in place, they were ready to start developing systems that could start transporting crews as soon as three years from now, considerably earlier than NASA’s planned start date of 2017.

“This is all leading to a plan that gets us to a flight to the ISS with people on board by the end of 2015,” said Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut who is now the commercial crew project manager at SpaceX. “That’s our goal, and we have a schedule that supports that.”

SpaceX’s award includes a series of reviews, such as an integrated system design review planned for next month, and hardware demonstrations, including both on-pad and in-flight tests of the abort system for the Dragon spacecraft. ‘We have a lot of toys to play with over the next 21 months,” he quipped. “As an engineer it’s going to be a really fun time.”

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is continuing work on its Dream Chaser spaceplane that had been supported by two earlier rounds of NASA Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) awards. Under its CCDev-2 award, SNC flew an engineering test article of Dream Chaser on a captive carry flight, slung under a helicopter, in May. Jim Voss, vice presidemt for space exploration systems at SNC, said at the AIAA Space 2012 panel that they’re planning a glide flight of that vehicle later this year at Edwards Air Force Base, once it’s outfitted with the necessary avionics.

Voss said that CCiCap will build upon those tests. “We expect to do piloted approach and landing tests sometime early in 2014, as we build up the capability of the vehicle and progress with our flight tests,” he said.

Boeing, like SNC, says it plans to build upon the work performed under its earlier two CCDev awards. “We had a lot of success in CCDev-2,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial programs at Boeing. “The entire focus there was a lot of risk reduction and development tests.”

A day after the AIAA panel session, Boeing and NASA jointly announced that the company had completed the first milestone of its new CCiCap agreement, an integrated systems review (ISR) of the company’s CST-100 spacecraft. “The ISR established a firm baseline configuration that will allow our team to push forward with the final vehicle design,” Mulholland said in the statement about the milestone.

Whither Liberty?

While Boeing, SNC, and SpaceX all won CCiCap awards, a fourth competitor, ATK, lost out, with its Liberty system concept not winning a funded agreement. (Three other obscure companies also submitted CCiCap proposals, but those proposals were rejected by NASA as not being compliant to the requirements of the program and thus not evaluated alongside the others.)

That loss is clearly still a sore spot for the ATK. Company officials privately express surprise that their proposal was not selected, believing it was so strong that the only question they had was not if they would get selected but if they would get the biggest award.

“It looks like it’s probably a smarter path for us to head towards cargo, satellites, those missions with Liberty and then see if we can’t end up with crewed missions” later, Rominger said.

However, the CCiCap source selection statement, issued by NASA earlier this month and signed by associate administrator William Gerstenmaier, reached a different conclusion about the Liberty system. “I had some significant concerns about the lack of detail in some areas of ATK’s technical approach that outweighed its strengths in the Business Information section,” he said in the document. That included a lack of information about how the company planned to integrate various “heritage” components into the overall system. “Basically the proposal lacked enough detail to determine if a safe crew transportation system could be developed in a timely and cost effective manner out of the heritage components ATK selected for this concept.” Gerstemaier added there was a “natural break” in the technical quality of the ATK proposal compared to the three that were funded.

That loss has raised questions about the future of the program. In a conference call with financial analysts last month about the company’s latest quarterly earnings report, ATK president and CEO Mark DeYoung hinted that Liberty was, at the very least, not a priority for the company going forward. “Liberty was a little bit of a longer shot for us, so we hadn’t planned on it, so from that view it should not have any significant financial impact for the company,” he said.

In a talk at AIAA Space 2012 last Wednesday, Kent Rominger, vice president and program manager for Liberty at ATK, said the company would continue work on Liberty, but focus now on developing the launch vehicle than the overall crew transportation system as previously envisioned. “It looks like it’s probably a smarter path for us to head towards cargo, satellites, those missions with Liberty and then see if we can’t end up with crewed missions” later, he said.

“We’re on internal funding, so we’re nowhere near moving out at the speed we would have with a commercial crew award,” he said. The company is talking with prospective customers for Liberty to gauge interest in the system. The Liberty vehicle, he said, could offer launches at a lower price than the current family of EELV rockets, the Atlas V and Delta IV, but would not be as inexpensive as SpaceX.

“The real key to this is development funding, and we’re looking for the right balance of development funding, ATK investment, to pull the trigger on moving out on a more accelerated schedule,” he said, noting that they need about $300 million to bring Liberty rocket up to the critical design review (CDR) stage of development. “We’re at an order of magnitude less than that, continuing on, keeping the program alive as we find the investment split” between ATK and other firms, he said.

Rominger added that they had originally put together a number of outside investors to support their CCiCap bid, but ATK management decided the business case looked so strong—they could break even at a rate of just one crewed Liberty flight a year—that ATK was willing to provide internal investment funds had they won the award.

Congressional concerns

While NASA and its industry partners move ahead with their CCiCap efforts, Congress is still keeping a close eye on the program. Last Friday the House Science Committee held a hearing on the commercial crew effort, with a particular concern on whether the CCiCap work was outpacing crew safety needs.

“I have to tell you, Admiral Dyer, I hear real warning signs coming out of your testimony, particularly when you talk about proceeding with designs before you have requirements,” said Rep. Edwards.

That specific issue was expressed by one of the panel’s witnesses, Admiral Joseph Dyer, chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP). He noted the development work is being done under Space Act Agreements (SAAs), which limit the ability of NASA to direct the work of the company, while the work to certify those vehicles as safe for carrying NASA astronauts would be done under a separate contract carried out under more conventional Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR).

“We arrive at this point in time with designs that are maturing before requirements, where government and industry have not yet agreed on how winning designs will be accepted and certified,” he said in his opening statement. “It is not clear yet to the Panel how the safety requirements necessary for certification will flow from the FAR contract to the SAA partners.”

That clearly worried some members of the committee. “I have to tell you, Admiral Dyer, I hear real warning signs coming out of your testimony, particularly when you talk about proceeding with designs before you have requirements,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD). “I just don’t get that.”

Gerstenmaier, the only other witness at the hearing, defended what he called a “hybrid” approach that features the flexibility of an SAA, while ensuring a certification process is in place through a FAR-based contract. Two days before the hearing, NASA issued a request for proposals for the first of two contract phases to perform the certification of commercial crew transportation systems.

Other committee members at the hearing raised questions about just how good of a deal the commercial crew program was. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) suggested that much of the CCiCap money might be wasted since NASA’s requirements for crew transportation would support only a single company. He said that if, for example, only Boeing was selected, the money that went to SpaceX and SNC—over $650 million—“would have been spent on companies for which NASA is not getting any direct service, but on the hope that, someday, competition will help lower the cost.”

“We have invested a significant amount of money into this program,” said SNC’s Voss. “As the dollar amounts get higher and higher the percentages tend to go down a little bit, but we believe in this program and we’re willing to invest.”

Gerstenmaier defended the support of multiple companies because of the promise of competition and additional non-NASA markets, and because the companies are still too early in their development to allow NASA to effectively choose a single winner. “If I knew with certainty which one of those companies could come through this process and deliver a product out the other side, I could pick now,” he said. “But at this point at where we are I want them to continue with their development.”

Both Brooks and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) asked Gerstenmaier how much of their own money the companies had put into the program. In both cases Gerstermaier said the exact amounts were proprietary to the companies. “Overall, it’s been my understanding that 80 or 90 percent comes from NASA. Is that a ballpark, legitimate figure?” Smith asked. Gerstenmaier agreed, repeating that figure later to Brooks.

However, at the AIAA Space 2012 panel, the assembled companies, while not offering specific figures, indicated that they made significantly larger investments. “The amount of funding that SpaceX has provided is on the same order as the amount of funding that we got from the government,” said Reisman, referring to both its cargo and crew development work. “We’re not half, but we’re close to that.”

“We don’t give out exact percentages of our contribution, but it has been significant,” said Boeing’s Mulholland.

“We have invested a significant amount of money into this program,” said SNC’s Voss. “In CCDev-1, we contributed more than NASA did. For CCDev-2, we were at a significant percentage, not quite half but pretty high. We’re trying to do significant investment as well in CCiCap. As the dollar amounts get higher and higher the percentages tend to go down a little bit, but we believe in this program and we’re willing to invest.”

While the exact investment these companies have made may remain unclear, what is certain is that, as NASA’s commercial crew effort transitions into this latest phase, with designs maturing and hardware being tested, the attention—and scrutiny—the program has experienced since its inception is unlikely to fade.


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