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Dream Chaser in orbit
Despite receiving a CCiCap award half the size of its two competitors, Sierra Nevada Corporation is working hard to stay in NASA’s commercial crew program as it enters its next phase. (credit: SNC)

Commercial crew’s critical year

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It is, perhaps, an overused claim: that a particular project or program is entering a “critical year.” Every year is crucial to any long-running effort, even if there are no major visible milestones that year. Fall short, or fall behind, at any point in a long-term program, and that program will feel the repercussions for years to come.

However, you can make the argument that 2014 is a particularly important year for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The three companies that have funded Space Act Agreements have significant testing milestones to come. At the same time, they await the outcome of the competition for the next round of the program, a process that, by the end of the year, will leave one and possibly two of those companies looking for a Plan B.

SNC chases its commercial crew dream

The current phase of the Commercial Crew Program, called Commercial Crew Integrated Capability, or CCiCap, involves three companies: Boeing, Sierra Corporation (SNC), and SpaceX. The three, though, are not funded at similar levels. When NASA made the CCiCap awards in August 2012, it gave “full” awards to Boeing and SpaceX, valued at $460 and $440 million each, respectively. SNC, though, got a much smaller award, valued at $212. 5 million. NASA structured those agreements to comply with an agreement between the agency and a key member of Congress, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), regarding how many awards NASA would make (see “Commercial crew’s winners and losers”, The Space Review, August 6, 2012.)

SNC’s agreements with ESA and DLR begin with the study of potential technologies for use on Dream Chaser, but could one day lead to Dream Chaser launches on Ariane 5 rockets.

That put SNC at a disadvantage to its competitors. Boeing and SpaceX’s agreements include milestones up to and including the critical design reviews (CDRs) for their crew vehicles, the final step before full-scale development and testing of those vehicles starts. SNC’s agreement, though, falls short of going to CDR, including only interim reviews and other milestones.

It may not be a coincidence, then, as preparations ramped up for the Commercial Crew Program’s next phase, called Commercial Crew Transportation Capability or CCtCap—proposals were due to NASA last week—that SNC has been the most active of the three likely competitors. While Boeing and SpaceX kept a relatively low profile in recent weeks, with little more than the occasional press release about their CCiCap progress, SNC was far more public, announcing new partnerships and contracts regarding its Dream Chaser lifting body vehicle.

On January 8, SNC announced what it called the “international expansion” of the Dream Chaser program. Specifically, the company said it had entered into agreements with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the German space agency Deutsche Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) to study technologies those agencies have that could benefit Dream Chaser.

“The relationships right now essentially are frameworks for what might be future cooperation,” SNC corporate vice Mark Sirangelo said at a press conference in Arlington, Virginia, announcing the agreements. “What we are structuring today is a long-term understanding of how we could work together; that is, the exploration of technologies, the exploration of missions, the exploration of how cooperation might help.” The agreements include no explicit exchange of funds between the agencies and SNC.

There is a “basket” of technologies ESA and DLR have that could have a role in Dream Chaser. Sirangelo noted that Europe has considerable experience in lifting body designs and reentry systems that could be useful for Dream Chaser. ESA’s Elena Grifoni Winters said at the announcement that ESA could offer expertise on docking systems and crew displays. Johann-Dietrich Wörner, chairman of the executive board of DLR, said that they may also have materials that could be used in Dream Chaser design that are lighter than what SNC is currently using.

Officials left open the possibility for greater cooperation in the future, up to and including launching Dream Chaser vehicles on Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket. “It’s even possible, with some minor changes to the Dream Chaser vehicle, to launch it within the fairing” of an upgraded version of the rocket, called the Ariane 5 ME, that’s under development, Wörner said. That would minimize modifications and testing needed for the rocket itself versus launching the Dream Chaser without a fairing.

At a January 23 press conference at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, SNC made additional moves to show its commitment to the Dream Chaser program. Sirangelo announced the company had signed a contract with United Launch Alliance (ULA) for the first test launch of the Dream Chaser on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral. That mission, scheduled for November 2016, will launch an uncrewed Dream Chaser into low Earth orbit, where it will remain for about a day before landing in California. “The purpose of that will be to test our launch, orbital operations, and autonomous entry, descent, and landing,” said Steve Lindsey, a former astronaut who is now SNC’s Dream Chaser program manager, at the press conference. A second test flight, with a crew on board, is scheduled for 2017.

Also at the same press conference, SNC said it was in talks to use the Operations and Checkout (O&C) building at KSC for Dream Chaser preparations SNC said it was also working with Space Florida—itself in discussions with NASA to take over operations of the Shuttle Landing Facility runway at KSC—to use that runway for Dream Chaser landings.

“Depending on what the proposals are, [we] will determine whether we can pick two companies that will then be the competitors or whether we go with one and a half in a lead-follower type of fashion,” Bolden said. “Our hope is that we’ll be able to pick at least two companies.”

SNC, though, was vague on the details of its contract with ULA for the Atlas V launch. SNC declined to disclose the cost of the launch, which was not surprising since launch pricing is typically considered sensitive and proprietary information. However, SNC also didn’t make clear if it had a full-fledged launch contract or instead a reservation that could later be turned a launch contract but costs less upfront for SNC. “We have committed to the launch, and have put down and are entering the contracting process to make that happen, and we intend to move that launch forward,” Sirangelo said in response to a question at Thursday’s press conference (which, despite lasting an hour, allowed less than 15 minutes for questions.)

It’s not then first time SNC has been a little secretive about elements of the Dream Chaser development program. In October, it performed the first free flight of the full-sized engineering test article of the vehicle, releasing it from a helicopter at an altitude of 3,800 meters above Edwards Air Force Base in California. The vehicle glided to a runway landing on a brief flight that went well up until the landing itself. One element of the vehicle’s landing gear failed to deploy, causing the vehicle to skid off the runway.

SNC has never released photos and video of the landing mishap: a video that the company released a few days after the test cuts off just moments before the runway landing, late enough to see that the gear had failed to deploy but before the actual landing itself. Even after NASA certified that the flight was a success, meeting the final milestone in SNC’s older Commercial Crew Development 2 (CCDev-2) agreement, the company declined to release additional footage of the test.

At the Arlington press conference earlier this month, Sirangelo offered some more details about the incident, blaming the failed gear deployment on contamination of its hydraulic fluid. The gear used, he added, was not the same gear planned for the flight version. “The vehicle was not substantially damaged in this incident,” he said, adding that it was back at SNC’s Colorado facilities for repairs and previously-planned upgrades for the next round of flight tests planned for later this year. “It’s a little bit like skinning our knees.”

Who makes the cut?

SNC’s push regarding Dream Chaser comes as NASA reviews the proposals for the CCtCap program. All three CCiCap companies are presumed to have submitted proposals (Boeing and SpaceX didn’t explicitly state last week that they had submitted proposals, although there’s every reason to believe they had.) There’s also nothing preventing other companies from submitting proposals, although they would be at a severe disadvantage to the CCiCap participants.

Even if only the three CCiCap companies submitted proposals for CCtCap, it’s unlikely NASA will be able to support all three. Agency officials have long indicated a desire to award CCtCap contracts to multiple companies in order to encourage competition that, they argue, will keep the prices for later crew transportation services down as well as maximize crew safety.

However, how many companies NASA can award contracts for CCtCap will depend, in large part, on the funding available. Previously, NASA officials warned that they required full funding of the overall Commercial Crew program—$821 million in the administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget request—to keep the program on schedule to begin crewed flights to the ISS in 2017. In the final FY14 appropriations bill passed by Congress earlier this month, though, the program got $696 million: more than in past years, but still short of the original request. Moreover, $171 million of that funding will be held back by Congress until NASA completes a cost-benefit analysis of commercial crew transportation that “takes into consideration the total Federal investment in the commercial crew program and the expected operational life of the International Space Station,” the report accompanying the bill stated.

Asked January 23 about the program’s funding during a question-and-answer session with participants of a “NASA Social” outreach event at the Kennedy Space Center prior to that night’s launch of a TDRS communications satellite, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said commercial crew was one of two areas where NASA was “a little disappointed” with the final spending levels, the other being NASA’s Space Technology program.

“There is risk that force-fitting the CCP into a fixed-price contract with only the funds available has the potential to adversely impact safety,” Dyer warned.

Bolden added that NASA hoped in the end to be able to choose “maybe two, maybe one and a half” companies for CCtCap contracts this summer. “Depending on what the proposals are, [we] will determine whether we can pick two companies that will then be the competitors or whether we go with one and a half in a lead-follower type of fashion,” Bolden said. “Our hope is that we’ll be able to pick at least two companies.”

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) singled out funding levels for the Commercial Crew Program in its latest annual report, published January 15. The cover letter accompanying the report noted that funding for the program had fallen short of the administration’s requests in 2011, 2012, and 2013 (the report was completed before the 2014 budget was finalized.) “This shortfall is seriously impacting acquisition strategy, and there is risk that force-fitting the CCP into a fixed-price contract with only the funds available has the potential to adversely impact safety,” ASAP’s chairman, Joseph Dyer, wrote in the cover letter.

Dyer reiterated those concerns in a meeting of ASAP on January 23. In particular, he brought up in discussion with ASAP members the possibility that NASA should buy additional Soyuz seats to cover flights to the ISS beyond 2017, providing some schedule cushion should commercial providers experience delays. A decision is needed in the next several months given the three-year lead time to develop Soyuz spacecraft. However, buying additional seats would reduce the market available to commercial providers, particularly if they are ready to fly in 2017, as all three currently claim to be on track for.

“I’ll offer a personal opinion that we’ll come down somewhere in-between on this decision,” Dyer said at the ASAP meeting, meaning that NASA will find a middle ground between not buying any Soyuz seats at all and committing to buying seats beyond 2017.

Even in the best situation, though, NASA is unlikely to have the funding to award CCtCap contracts to all three CCiCap companies, meaning that one or possibly two of them will have to reconsider their plans after NASA makes its decision. Asked about whether SNC would continue Dream Chaser work at the KSC press conference last week, Sirangelo was noncommittal. “What happens after the contract award, happens or not happens, we’ll decide then,” he said.

In Arlington earlier this month, though, Sirangelo sounded more willing to pursue Dream Chaser development with additional NASA support, playing up the potential additional uses of the vehicle beyond shuttling astronauts to and from the ISS. “We have made our own major investment in the program,” he said of SNC. “We fully expect the program is going to continue, it’s now at a level of maturity where that’s possible” without NASA support.