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Dream Chaser captive carry test
Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser engineering test article is suspended below a helicopter (out of frame) during a captive carry test flight at the Dryden Flight Research Center last month. (credit: NASA/Carla Thomas)

Commercial crew prepares for its next phase

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NASA’s commercial cargo program has been in the spotlight in the last week, with the successful launch Wednesday morning of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s first Cygnus cargo spacecraft on an Antares rocket from Virginia. While carrying 700 kilograms of cargo, the primary purpose of the mission is to put the Cygnus spacecraft through its paces, demonstrating it can safely transport cargo to the International Space Station. And like many test flights, there are glitches to overcome: the planned rendezvous of Cygnus with the ISS on Sunday was waved off because of a computer glitch. Cygnus’s arrival at the station is now planned for the end of this week, after the arrival of new crewmembers to the station.

“Our focus right now is really on flying, and I’m so happy to be able to say that,” Sirangelo said. “After so many years of being on paper, and after a long time in the design phase, we are now starting our flight test program.”

As the Cygnus mission plays out (the spacecraft will remain at the station for a month before departing on a destructive reentry), the spotlight will soon shift back over to NASA’s commercial crew program. For more than a year, three companies—Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX—have been working on the latest phase of the program, called Commercial Crew Integrated Capability, or CCiCap. Some of the biggest milestones in the CCiCap are due in the coming months, while NASA prepares to roll out the next—and biggest—phase in the overall effort.

Progress of the CCiCap companies

The next biggest event in the CCiCap effort arguably belongs to Sierra Nevada, developing the Dream Chaser spacecraft. In May, the company transported the engineering test article for that lifting body spacecraft to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California, where it has performed a number of taxi tests and, last month, a captive carry flight, where the vehicle was suspended beneath a helicopter. All those are preludes to the upcoming first glide flight by the Dream Chaser.

“Our focus right now is really on flying, and I’m so happy to be able to say that,” Sierra Nevada vice president Mark Sirangelo said during a panel on NASA’s commercial cargo and crew programs at the AIAA Space 2013 conference earlier this month in San Diego. “After so many years of being on paper, and after a long time in the design phase, we are now starting our flight test program.”

The Dream Chaser currently at Dryden is a test article not designed to go into space itself. “The easiest way to describe it is that this is our Enterprise,” he said, referring to the prototype shuttle orbiter that performed approach and landing tests at the same site in the 1970s but never itself flew in space.

With the completion of the taxi tests, when Dream Chaser was towed behind a truck at speeds of up to nearly 100 km/h, and the captive carry flight, the next step is a glide flight. Sirangelo and the company have not announced a specific date for the test, other than it is coming soon. Sirangelo, in his September 11 presentation, said the flight was coming “in the next few weeks” and “very shortly.” That flight will be piloted autonomously, without anyone on board; later test flights may have a pilot on board, he said, since the vehicle is designed to be flown both fully autonomously and with a human at the controls.

Boeing, meanwhile, has continued progress on its CST-100 capsule. Earlier this month, the company reported a successful interface test between the spacecraft’s software and the mission control center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Just last Friday, NASA announced that the CST-100’s attitude control thrusters, developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne, completed a “gauntlet of test firings” at White Sands, New Mexico. Those achievements bring the total number of milestones Boeing has completed under its CCiCap award to 10, out of a total of 20.

“There’s just been a tremendous amount of activity across all of the systems,” John Mulholland, vice president and manager for commercial programs at Boeing, said at AIAA Space 2013. The bulk of the remaining milestones in Boeing’s CCiCap award involve a series of reviews, culminating with a critical design review for the overall spacecraft next spring and a safety review in the summer, the latter an optional milestone formally funded by NASA last month.

While Boeing plans, like Sierra Nevada, to use the Atlas V rocket to launch its spacecraft, Mulholland said the company is leaving option the option to fly the CST-100 on other rockets, including SpaceX’s Falcon 9. “We’re trying to ensure that our design is compatible with their rocket also,” he said of the Falcon 9.

“We’re going to make this as close as possible to the real thing,” Reisman said of SpaceX’s upcoming abort tests.

SpaceX, though, is busy working on the crewed version of its Dragon spacecraft that will fly atop the Falcon 9. “The job for us is a little bit different” than the other CCiCap companies, said SpaceX commercial crew program manager Garrett Reisman at AIAA Space 2013. “It’s taking a rocket and spacecraft that we already have and just modifying that so it’s safe enough to do the mission of carrying people.”

SpaceX’s work under CCiCap and a separate certification products contract has focused on four things, he said: completing the system design, doing hardware tests, focusing on safety, and “going down a good path” towards eventual certification of the system by NASA. SpaceX has completed seven CCiCap award milestones to date, and on schedule, he said.

Upcoming milestones include a helicopter drop test of the capsule to test an updated parachute design and tests of the Dragon’s abort system: one from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, and an in-flight test where the Dragon will separate from an Falcon 9 at maximum aerodynamic drag. Those abort tests will use the “most flight-like” models of any spacecraft in an abort test, including placing a “flight test dummy” inside the spacecraft, according to Reisman. “We’re going to make this as close as possible to the real thing,” he said.

From iCap to tCap

While the three companies continue work on their CCiCap agreements, which run through next summer, they’re also paying close attention to the next phase of the program. In July, NASA released a draft version of a Request for Proposals (RFP) for that next phase, called Commercial Crew Transportation Capability, or CCtCap. Unlike previous phases, which used funded (and, for some companies, unfunded) Space Act Agreements, CCtCap will use firm fixed price contracts under the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) to cover the development and testing of commercial crew vehicles.

The draft RFP, and an industry day held at the beginning of August at the Kennedy Space Center, allowed the companies to provide NASA with feedback before the final RFP is issued, likely in the second half of October. “In general, my interpretation is that the companies really liked what we put out there,” Ed Mango, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said of the feedback to the draft RFP during a briefing with reporters at Space 2013. Mango said there was some feedback from the companies that could lead to changes in the final RFP, including how the milestones for vehicle development are managed under CCtCap.

Current plans call for the release of the final CCtCap RFP in October, with proposals due by the end of this calendar year. “Then we go though an evaluation period for quite some time,” Mango said, with contracts to be awarded by the end of July 2014. Those contracts will cover the development and testing of the commercial crew vehicles, as well as at least two missions to the ISS, with options for up to six missions before transitioning to a service contract.

One key issue with CCtCap, and the overall program, is just how many contracts NASA will award. “I would like to have more than one,” said Mango. Having multiple contracts, he said, would provide competition that would help not only in keeping prices down, but also by improving safety, as companies seek to demonstrate they best meet NASA’s safety requirements. “Competition is very good from a safety standpoint as well as from a cost standpoint,” he said, “so I would like to have more than one [company] in CCtCap.”

“If we don’t get the President’s budget over the next four to five years, then it very well could impact 2017,” the planned date for beginning commercial crew flights to the ISS, Mango said. “It certainly impacts our ability to have competition.”

Whether there are contracts for one company or two under CCtCap (Mango said he could “almost guarantee” NASA would not be able to award three contracts) will largely be a function of the program’s budget, which has been one of the more controversial parts of the agency’s overall budget. NASA requested $821 million for the commercial crew program for fiscal year 2014, which starts next month. An appropriations bill in the Senate would give the program close to that amount, $775 million, but the House version offers only $500 million for the program.

However, it may be months before Congress is able to settle on an appropriations bill for 2014. NASA, and the rest of the federal government, will start the year with a continuing resolution (CR), which funds the government at 2013 levels into 2014. And, even then, there’s no guarantee a CR will be in place on October 1, as the House and Senate debate provisions about the bill, including funding for provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Exactly how much money the Commercial Crew program would get in 2014 under a CR is also unclear. Congress funded the program at $525 million, but budget sequestration and an across-the-board rescission included in the final appropriations bill reduced that to $488 million. However, in a fiscal year 2013 operating plan released by NASA in late August—just a little more than a month before the end of the fiscal year—the agency reported that it had, with the concurrence of Congress, restored commercial crew funding to the pre-sequester level of $525 million.

“If we are under a CR, we will be, unless there’s new legislation that adds to the CR, somewhere between $488 and 525 million,” Mango said at Space 2013. “A CR, and how that impacts Commercial Crew, is still to be determined.” He added that, regardless of the CR funding level, the program is in good shape to continue into fiscal year 2014. “From a program standpoint, we are good through this year and into FY14,” he said. “We’re good, under a number of estimates, to get through FY14 and still be able to complete the commitments that we have under CCiCap and CPC,” referring to the separate, small certification products contracts each of the three CCiCap companies also have.

The restored funding the program got for 2013 under the operating plan was not a factor in the announcement NASA made in August of its decision to fund additional, previously optional milestones for the three companies, valued at a total of $55 million. Instead, Mango said the program looked at the biggest risks each of the three companies faced in their development, based on the progress they made in the first year of their CCiCap awards, and funded the optional milestones in their agreements most closely related to them.

An increase in the budget may be essential to preserve NASA’s desire to fund more than one company in the CCtCap phase. Mango says NASA estimates that each company will spend a total of $2–4 billion to develop a commercial crew system, counting investment in the previous phases of the program and the internal investment each company makes, typically a proprietary amount. “It’s going to be hard to do more than one, unless we get what the President’s budget is looking for,” he said. “If we don’t get the President’s budget over the next four to five years, then it very well could impact 2017,” the planned date for beginning commercial crew flights to the ISS. “It certainly impacts our ability to have competition.”

Mango, though, is optimistic that, somehow, increased funding for commercial crew will be found by Congress, citing the “momentum” he sees the program developing. “The mood as I see it, in both the executive side and the Congressional side, for commercial crew is getting stronger,” he said, noting Congress’s willingness to support the restored funding for the program in the FY13 operating plan.

Or, as he put it in the Space 2013 panel, standing alongside the various commercial crew providers discussing the prospects for funding in FY14, “I like to think I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.”