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Dream Chaser
Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser is one commercial crew concept getting financial support, albeit at a low level, from NASA’s CCDev program. (credit: SNC)

Building a foundation for commercial crew

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For much of this year the debate about the future direction of NASA has been dominated by the proposal in the president’s fiscal year 2011 budget request to spend up to $6 billion over the next five years to help fund the development of commercial systems to transport crews to and from the International Space Station. Some have hailed the decision as a milestone in space commercialization, turning over access to low Earth orbit (LEO) to the private sector and allowing NASA to focus on exploration beyond LEO. Others warn that turning to companies with little or no experience in human spaceflight could further extend the post-Shuttle gap and be no more cost effective than government-led programs. The debate, which has been relatively quiet in recent weeks while Congress has been on its summer recess, will likely heat back up again as senators and congressmen return to Washington next week.

Lost in the debate, though, is the fact that commercial crew development efforts are ongoing, albeit at a very basic level. In February, NASA awarded $50 million to five companies to work on concepts for commercial crew transportation systems as well as key subsystems. NASA, meanwhile, is refining its plans for a full-fledged commercial crew development program. Should funding be forthcoming from Congress in the coming months, both NASA and industry say they’re ready to hit the ground running.

CCDev progress report

The Commercial Crew Development, or CCDev, program is using a sliver of NASA’s share of last year’s stimulus package to support the development of capabilities needed for commercial human spaceflight. The $50 million allocated is far short of even the most optimistic estimates of the cost of a full-fledged system, so instead NASA spread the money across five companies to help advance the development of specific capabilities needed by such systems.

“The level of support we have received from this office has been outstanding,” MacCallum said of NASA’s CCDev effort.

A little over half a year after receiving the awards, all five companies reported making good progress on their efforts during a session of the AIAA Space 2010 conference last week in Anaheim, California. Paragon Space Development Corporation received the smallest award, $1.4 million, to develop an environmental control system for use on crewed vehicles. Paragon CEO Taber MacCallum said that they've completed three of five milestones in their project, including a “by-the-book” preliminary design review.

Blue Origin, the secretive company started by founder Jeff Bezos (see “Blue is a little less black”, The Space Review, February 22, 2010), is best known for working on a suborbital vehicle, known as New Shepard, but project manager Robert Meyerson noted that many of those technologies can also apply to an orbital vehicle, a long-term goal of the company. The company’s $3.7-million CCDev award focuses on two areas: a “pusher” escape system where thrusters in the base of the spacecraft push the vehicle away from its launcher (as opposed to the traditional “tractor” system that uses an escape tower to pull a capsule away), and a composite pressure vessel. He said the company has performed the first of two full-scale ground tests of the thrust vector control system for the pusher escape system, with the second test planned in about four weeks. The composite pressure vessel was completed just before the conference, with plans to perform a drop test in their facility in October to simulate a landing where one of three descent parachutes failed.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) is using its CCDev award, valued at $6.7 million, to work on an Emergency Detection System (EDS) for its Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, a key element in any eventual human-rating of those launch vehicles. That effort, program manager Michael Holguin said, is being supplemented by $1.3 million from ULA and its partners. The company has achieved three of four milestones in its award, with the fourth scheduled to be completed this fall. That work, he said, builds upon earlier studies that date back to the short-lived Orbital Space Plane program in the early 2000s; future plans call for full-scaled development of the EDS and flight tests over the next few years.

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) received the biggest CCDev award, $20 million, to continue development of its Dream Chaser lifting body vehicle concept that dates back to work done by SpaceDev, a company acquired by SNC in 2008. The work covered under the CCDev award spans a wide range of activities, from development of an engineering test article to work on various subsystems. The CCDev award has been exceeded by internal investment, according to Mark Sirangelo, chairman of SNC Space Systems. “Between those two sources of funding we’ve been able to make a significant amount of progress on this vehicle in the last year,” he said. SNC has passed the first two milestones of its CCDev award, he added, with a third milestone approaching within the next couple of weeks.

Boeing, which received an $18-million CCDev award, has arguably made the biggest public push in recent months for its concept, a crew capsule called the CST-100 (“Yes, one of these days we’ll get a better name,” quipped program manager Keith Reiley.) In recent weeks Boeing has talked up the project in fora ranging from telecons to a high-profile press conference at the Farnborough International Airshow in England. In the modest exhibit hall at Space 2010 the Boeing booth featured CST-100 literature that showed the capsule mated to Atlas 5, Delta 4, and Falcon 9 launch vehicles; there was also a model of Bigelow Aerospace space station, highlighting the partnership between the two companies on the CST-100.

“Our vision is to have a robust commercial human space transportation system with multiple providers and multiple customers,” said McAlister.

Reiley said that the CCDev award allowed the company to make rapid progress on the early stages of development of the capsule. “We’ve made up in schedule at least nine months through CCDev,” he said. A system design review for the CST-100 is planned for October, followed by a preliminary design review next year. Assuming sufficient funding, he said, the spacecraft would be ready to enter service by 2015.

The companies on the panel all noted that NASA’s support for their projects extended beyond the funding provided under CCDev, including advisory teams that have provided guidance on NASA’s requirements and shared experience from past programs. “The level of support we have received from this office has been outstanding,” MacCallum said.

NASA’s plans

While the CCDev awardees have been working on their vehicle concepts and components, NASA has been working to flesh out some of the details of the agency’s proposed full-scale commercial crew program. At a two-hour forum in Washington last month NASA officials shared some details about their vision for how a commercial crew program would run, based on feedback from a recent request for information issued by the agency.

“Our vision is to have a robust commercial human space transportation system with multiple providers and multiple customers,” said Phil McAlister, commercial crew planning lead within NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, at the August 19th forum.

Having multiple providers allows not just for the obvious backup capability should one provider experience problems, but also a “portfolio of capabilities” given the likely different capabilities of various commercially-developed vehicles, he said, drawing an analogy to a household having both a minivan and a sports car available for specific needs. “If we have multiple providers,” he said, “I would think it unlikely that they would have exactly the same capability.”

The budget proposal for commercial crew development, if fully funded at $5.8 billion over the next five years, would be enough to fund up to four providers, McAlister said. Should Congress fund the program at a lower level—a likely outcome given the bills working their way through the House and Senate—NASA would “adjust if necessary”, he said, although the details would have to be worked out later. “We are having some discussions on contingency plans associated with that, but we have not fully developed any kind of alternative plan for alternative budgets, of which there could be an infinite number of variations,” he said. Any reevaluation of the plan, though, would likely preserve supporting multiple providers, even if it means trading off schedule, he added.

“Assuming the existence of a commercial market to entice or extort the companies to invest is the wrong way to go,” warned Sowers.

NASA is also structuring the way it will provide technical support to commercial crew providers. “Some will want more help from NASA, believe it or not; some won’t,” said Scott Thurston, program planning insight manager for the program at the Kennedy Space Center. He described an “insight/oversight” model where an embedded NASA insight team provides support and recommendations to the commercial provider, but not direction; a separate oversight team handles the management, approval, and direction for the program.

At the forum NASA officials quickly dealt with a major concern in some quarters about commercial crew transportation: whether such systems can be safe. “There’s been a lot of dialogue about whether the private sector is capable of developing safe human spaceflight systems,” McAlister said. “Our answer to that is fairly simple: These systems will not fly until NASA is convinced, with confidence, that they are safe.”

Learning the lessons of EELV

At the NASA forum agency officials said they are still working on the details of an acquisition strategy for the commercial crew program, beyond the desire to have multiple awardees. One industry official, though, cautioned about following a path similar to another major program that put too much of the development burden on commercial providers.

George Sowers, vice president of business development for ULA, noted during a session of the AIAA Space 2010 conference last week that the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program had a mixed outcome. From a technical and programmatic standpoint the effort was a success, delivering two classes of highly reliable launch vehicles, the Atlas 5 and Delta 4. The program also worked out well for the US government, which spent only $1 billion on the development of the vehicles, while Boeing and Lockheed Martin spent over $4 billion of their own money. However, he noted, the program was a business failure for the two companies, who found themselves unable to recoup their investment as launch rates fell far short of projections. That eventually led the two companies to merge their EELV programs into a single entity, ULA.

The companies invested so much of their own money into the programs in large part because of the promised large commercial market these vehicles could support. At the time of the late 1990s, high demand for commercial communications systems, including large constellations like Teledesic, led to forecasts of high launch rates. Sowers noted that at one point Lockheed had a conservative forecast of 19 Atlas 5 launches a year. However, when those commercial systems failed to materialize, commercial launch demand plummeted. Today, he noted, the Atlas 5 performs an average of five launches a year, almost all for government customers.

Sowers said he sees something similar potentially developing for commercial crew systems. “It’s kind of eerie to me, having lived through the EELV experience, to hear the same rhetoric about the commercial crew market,” he said. While confident that commercial markets for crewed vehicles exist, he cautioned that these markets are less well known than the communications satellite market was in the late 1990s. “Assuming the existence of a commercial market to entice or extort the companies to invest is the wrong way to go.”

Sowers advocated a much larger government role investing in such systems for several reasons. One is that the government needs the capability in the first place, so as not to be reliant on the Russians for access to the station. A second reason is that a commercially-developed system can reduce costs compared to government-developed ones. And, as such systems enter service and find traction in the commercial market, the increased demand and corresponding lower per-flight costs provide a cost savings to the government in the long run. “The government should invest” up front, unlike the EELV case, he said, “and if the government does invest, then a commercial market can be established and then the government can get its return on investment.”

Whether decision-makers in Washington will go along with that rationale, and to what degree, will be the subject of debate for weeks, and perhaps months, to come. Asked at the end of the CCDev panel session at AIAA Space 2010 what the next step in the program was after the completion of the current awards, Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office, said, “Obviously, we need to keep the momentum going,” but added that “it is a question of policy” at this point. A foundation has been created for commercial crew, but there’s no guarantee what, if anything, policymakers will decide to build upon it.