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Blue Origin vehicle illustration
Blue Origin’s Space Act Agreement released by NASA included this illustration of its biconic vehicle capable of carrying seven people into orbit, a rare insight into the secretive company’s plans. (credit: Blue Origin)

Commercial crew’s final four

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Last Monday, NASA announced that it would award nearly $270 million to four companies in the next step in the agency’s efforts to spur the development of commercial systems that can carry astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. The awards made under the second round of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development effort, or CCDev-2, are intended to mature technologies and components intended for those later crewed vehicles.

The four companies that won the funded Space Act Agreements for CCDev-2 are not that surprising. Three of the four—Blue Origin, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corporation—won first-round CCDev awards last February. The fourth, SpaceX, has already received Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) awards for developing a launch vehicle and spacecraft for cargo transportation that the company plans to adapt for crewed missions. While the CCDev-2 awards are not intended as a “downselect”, eliminating other options, it looks increasingly likely that the vehicles that are eventually funded for development will be selected from this group.

From 22 to 4

Last October, NASA issued the CCDev-2 announcement, asking for proposals from industry to “further advance orbital commercial CTS [crew transportation systems] concepts and enable significant progress on maturing the design and development of elements of the system,” according to NASA’s selection statement for the CCDev-2 competition. A total of 22 companies submitted proposals, ranging from aerospace industry heavyweights like ATK, Boeing, and United Space Alliance (USA), to obscure companies like alphaSpaces and Orbital Space Transport LLC.

“We came up with the best portfolio that fit within that funding profile,” said Phil McAlister of NASA.

NASA, in its assessment of the proposals, showed a clear preference for complete transportation systems rather than proposed subsystems that “failed to show solid commitments from element providers”. A number of proposals were eliminated based on that assessment, including Paragon Space Development Corporation, which won one of the five first-round CCDev awards last year to work on a life support system for crewed spacecraft.

Other companies were cut during the assessment for other reasons, from having major, glaring weaknesses to failing to follow the instructions in the announcement. Also getting cut at this stage was a proposal from USA, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that handles shuttle operations, to study commercial operations of part of the shuttle fleet beyond the scheduled retirement of the orbiters later this year. Without discussing the specifics of the proposal, the NASA source selection document states that it “did not fall within the scope or intent of the CCDev 2 effort”, and as a result USA withdrew its proposal last month.

The initial evaluation of proposals led to eight finalists, which underwent another round of due diligence: ATK, Blue Origin, Boeing, Excalibur Almaz, Orbital Sciences, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), SpaceX, and United Launch Alliance (ULA). The eight proposals were then re-evaluated based on both technical and business criteria, given a color-coded score for each.

As both the selection statement and comments by NASA officials indicate, the agency didn’t simply give the awards to the companies with the best scores in the evaluation. “We came up with the best portfolio that fit within that funding profile,” said Phil McAlister, acting director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA during the press conference announcing the awards. In the selection statement, signed by McAlister, he stated that the color-coded ratings served as “only indicators and did not form the sole basis of my decision.”

In the statement, McAlister said he considered it important to have a diverse range of technical approaches, given the relative lack of technical maturity among crew concepts in general. A “strong business approach” was another key factor. NASA also prioritized spacecraft development over launch vehicle development. “Within the U.S. industrial base, there is considerable launch vehicle development expertise and experience, as many companies have successfully developed new launch vehicles over the last few decades,” the statement reads. “In contrast, no U.S. company has successfully developed a crew-carrying spacecraft in over thirty years.”

The Boeing and SpaceX proposals “stood out from the rest” because of their high ratings in technical and business factors, the selection statement continued. Because both were developing capsules, “I considered it important to have at least one lifting body concept in the portfolio,” McAlister wrote. That effectively put the proposals from Orbital and SNC head-to-head. “SNC scored higher in business considerations and demonstrated a strong commitment to the public-private partnership associated with the Commercial Crew Program,” the statement read. SNC’s Dream Chaser could also carry more people than Orbital’s Prometheus (seven versus four) and required a less powerful version of the Atlas 5 rocket. Although SNC’s proposal had a weakness in its abort system, it edged out Orbital overall.

SpaceX claims that the CCDev-2 agreement puts the company on course to start carrying out crewed flights to the ISS as early as 2014.

NASA’s preference for spacecraft over launch systems worked against ATK and ULA, which were proposing a new launch vehicle called Liberty and emergency detection systems for existing launchers, respectively. ULA lost out because its proposal was not on the critical path for any system and it failed to adequately discuss commercial markets its vehicles would serve. ATK’s Liberty—using the same five-segment SRB developed for the now-canceled Ares 1 and an upper stage derived from the core stage of the Ariane 5—got high scores on both technical and business aspects. However, ATK had no customers for the vehicle, creating a “significant concern” that NASA could support the vehicle’s development only to find that no one wanted to put their crewed spacecraft on it.

This left NASA weighing using the remaining CCDev-2 funding on proposals from Blue Origin and Excalibur Almaz. NASA said Excalibur’s unidentified proposal had an “innovative and unique approach”, but with a consistent lack of detail on the company’s technical and business approaches; it was the lowest-rated of the eight. Blue Origin, by comparison, won approvals for its technical and business approach, and its proposal of a “moderate life biconic shape spacecraft” added to the diversity of technical concepts favored by NASA. This was enough to give the company the edge for the final award, although at a reduced funding level from its original proposal.

The final four

While getting the smallest award at $22 million, Blue Origin got perhaps the most attention of the four awardees because it provided new insight into the plans of the secretive company. Their spacecraft, identified in their agreement as simply the “Space Vehicle”, is designed to be launched initially on an Atlas 5, as the company indicated in its first-round CCDev proposal (see “Blue is a little less black”, The Space Review, February 22, 2010). However, the company adds that, eventually, the Space Vehicle will be launched by an orbital vertical-takeoff-and-landing RLV the company is separately developing. Blue Origin plans to use the CCDev-2 award to advance the design of the Space Vehicle, continue work on a “pusher” escape system performed under its original CCDev award, and accelerate development of a 445-kilonewton (100,000-pound-force) liquid oxygen and hydrogen engine planned for its RLV.

Boeing, which received the largest CCDev-2 award at $92.3 million, plans to continue work on the design of its CST-100 capsule it started under its first CCDev award. The company intends to take the spacecraft through a preliminary design review (PDR) and 80 percent of the way to its critical design review (CDR) during the award period, which runs to May 2012. Work planned under the award includes testing of a lighter-weight version of an abort engine tested under its first CCDev award, parachute and air bag tests, and building a structural test article of the CST-100 command module.

Sierra Nevada, another first-round CCDev awardee, got $80 million under CCDev-2 to continue work on its Dream Chaser vehicle. It plans to undertake a number of efforts to refine the design of the Dream Chaser, leading up to a PDR by next May. That work includes construction of an engineering test article of the spacecraft, along with wind tunnel tests of the vehicles fins and development of flight simulator.

SpaceX is the only one of the four CCDev-2 awardees that didn’t win a first-round CCDev award last year, but the company has other advantages, including having successfully carried out the first demonstration flight of its Dragon cargo spacecraft, the basis of its crewed vehicle, last December as part of the COTS program. SpaceX plans to spend much of its $75-million award developing a pusher escape system integrated into the Dragon spacecraft, an approach the company believes is not only safer but could later be used to make powered landings rather than splashing down. Notably, the company claims that the CCDev-2 agreement puts the company on course to start carrying out crewed flights to the ISS as early as 2014.

Room for others?

At last Monday’s announcement of the CCDev-2 awards NASA officials made it clear that this should not be considered a downselect. McAlister said the agency was still working on its strategy for the next round of commercial crew development efforts, and hoped to be able to provide more details on those plans by mid to late summer. “I can say that it will not be a downselect from CCDev-2,” he added, saying that both CCDev rounds are intended to develop and mature technologies.

“NASA is on a good track to turn over astronaut transportation to commercial operators, and I think ultimately the agency will be successful at doing that,” Orbital CEO Dave Thompson said, despite not winning a CCDev-2 award.

“For the next phase, that will be an open activity for all US companies,” he said, with an emphasis on “end-to-end design concepts” for commercial crew systems. “It is my sincere hope that companies not selected for award today will continue maturing their systems and make progress on their designs so that they can potentially be available at some point in the future for purchase by NASA and other customers.”

Those companies that didn’t win CCDev-2 awards, though, will have to continue such work on their own dime, and at least one company that missed the cut has suggested that they don’t plan to continue their efforts. “It was disappointing that we weren’t selected” for a CCDev-2 award, Orbital CEO Dave Thompson said in a conference call with financial analysts Thursday to discuss the company’s first quarter financial results. “I don’t, at this time, anticipate that we’ll continue to pursue our own project in that race. We’ll watch it and if an opportunity develops we may reconsider. But at this point, I would not anticipate a lot of activity on our part in the commercial crew market.”

Thompson, though, was generally supportive of the commercial crew effort. “NASA is on a good track to turn over astronaut transportation to commercial operators, and I think ultimately the agency will be successful at doing that,” he said.

Prior to the CCDev-2 announcement, the manager of Boeing’s efforts suggested they would think twice about continuing if they didn’t get funded. “We’d have to assess the market and the likelihood that NASA would want to pursue this further, at a later time,” John Elbon, vice president and program manager at Boeing Space Commercial Crew Programs, said during a briefing at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs the week before the CCDev-2 announcement. “We’re dependent on NASA as an investor in this process, and we’re also dependent on NASA as a foundational customer to close our business case.”

That suggests that, perhaps despite the best intentions of NASA, the companies that did win CCDev-2 awards will have the inside track towards later awards to fully develop and fly those systems in the next several years. “I do truly believe that the next US-flagged crewed system will come from the efforts that could be part of the CCDev-2 effort, and will close the gap for our American-made systems to get to low Earth orbit,” Ed Mango, NASA’s commercial crew program manager. And, barring a major shakeup in the market, those US-flagged vehicles will also likely bear the corporate logos of Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, or SpaceX.