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NASA Funds Four Spaceship Developers, Leaves Door Open to Others

April 19, 2011
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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The march continues to establishing a commercial manned orbital flight capability.

Four companies pursuing technologies connected to manned orbital spacecraft are receiving $270 million from NASA in the second phase of an effort targeted at building a commercial manned space launch industry. The goal is to develop a launch capability that would replace the space shuttle and lead to commercial exploitation of manned orbital spaceflight (SIGNAL Magazine, March 2011, page 40, http://bit.ly/fIfEi2).

This NASA funding aims to help the four companies develop enabling technologies. However, these Space Act Agreements do not rule out the participation of other firms in developing manned orbital spacecraft that might be used by NASA to transport people into low earth orbit. NASA officials emphasize that the next round of funding, which will ensue following the end of this effort in May 2012, will be open to any company that can meet the criteria of that future request for proposals.

The four companies and their funding awarded under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev)-2 effort are The Boeing Company, Houston, $92.3 million; Sierra Nevada Corporation, Louisville, Colorado, $80 million; Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Hawthorne, California, $75 million; and Blue Origin, Kent, Washington, $22 million. Each company received Space Act funding for spacecraft design and development as well as to develop specific concepts or capabilities that would help further their development of a manned orbital spacecraft.

Boeing is developing its own capsule, the CST-100, that would return to Earth on land. Its $92.3 million award focuses on multiple high-risk items, including a launch abort engine.

Sierra Nevada receives $80 million to mature its Dream Chaser spaceplane. It also focuses on multiple spacecraft high-risk items, ultimately leading to a spacecraft preliminary design review.

SpaceX already has launched and recovered an unmanned orbital spacecraft using its own Falcon booster. The company’s $75 million award focuses on its side-mount launch abort system and crew accommodation prototype development.

Blue Origin has been known to be focusing on building a suborbital space craft known as New Shepard. However, the $22 million Space Act funding is for technologies related to the development of a fully orbital crew transportation system. Related technologies covered by this award include the company’s pusher escape system and engine pump and thrust chamber testing. Blue Origin’s proposal that served as the basis for its award describes a seven-person orbital vehicle that originally would be launched atop an Atlas V booster, and it later would be launched atop the company’s own reusable booster system currently under development. Philip McAlister, acting director, Commercial Spaceflight Development, NASA Headquarters, emphasizes that the Blue Origin funding aims at the development of a manned orbital spacecraft, not just the enabling capabilities.

These four awardees were selected from among a group of eight proposals. “Overall, we were very impressed with the quality of the proposals we received,” McAlister states. “All eight of the participants selected for due diligence had worthwhile proposals and demonstrated an understanding of safety and a commitment to safe spaceflight.

“Given enough time and money, I am confident that multiple U.S. companies could develop safe, reliable and cost-effective commercial crew transportation systems,” he declares.

McAlister adds that he hopes the companies not selected for CCDev-2 awards will continue to mature their technologies so that their systems could be available for purchase by NASA or other customers for its spaceflight needs.

The strategy for the next CCDev round still is under development. NASA officials expect to be able to provide guidelines in the late summer. McAlister emphasizes that it will not be a down-select, but instead will be an open activity for U.S. companies that focuses on end-to-end system design concepts. It will not be limited to these four companies that won CCDev-2 awards.

The target remains for commercial manned orbital launch services to be available “in the middle part of this decade,” he states.