NASA's CCiCAP Partners Have Diverse Design Approaches

NASA's CCiCAP Partners Have Diverse Design Approaches

One factor that led NASA to choose the three companies it did for Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) awards is their diverse design approaches to meeting NASA’s need to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA announced the three winners today:  Boeing, $460 million; SpaceX, $440 million;and Sierra Nevada, $212.5 million.  The awards are milestone-based meaning that each company must meet agreed-upon milestones over the next 21 months to receive payments.  The award amounts are if all the milestones are met, but could be less if they are not met.

Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon are capsule-based systems while Sierra Nevada’s design is a lifting body that resembles a small space shuttle.  Boeing and Sierra Nevada plan to launch using an Atlas V rocket, while SpaceX would use its own Falcon 9.  By funding a diversity of approaches, NASA hopes to end up with at least two viable commercial crew service providers in the 2017 time frame. 


SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft (cargo version) berthed to the International Space Station, May 2012

Photo credit:  NASA

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser during full scale captive carry test, May 2012

Photo credit:  Sierra Nevada


Artist’s concept of Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft

Credit:  Boeing 

NASA and key members of Congress had agreed the agency would choose no more than “2.5” winners, creating the impression there would be two full awards and one partial award and the relative amounts suggest that is what NASA did.   NASA Commercial Crew and Cargo program manager Ed Mango, however, dismissed that paradigm during a news conference today.  He said NASA negotiated what each company could accomplish within the 21-month period and that determined the funding amounts.    NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said at a later media teleconference that the selections meet the congressional agreement in the sense that two of the companies — Boeing and SpaceX — are being funded to take their concepts all the way to Critical Design Review (CDR), but not Sierra Nevada. 

Gerstenmaier said four other companies submitted bids:  Space Operations, American Aerospace, Space Design, and ATK.  He said NASA determined early on that the first three companies did not meet the basic requirements of the announcement and discussions continued with the remaining four.  In the end, the three winners were judged to meet the objectives of the announcement “in a much stronger fashion” than ATK, Gerstenmaier said.

Since the space shuttle program ended last year, NASA has been relying on Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS.   NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden focused his remarks on how the CCiCAP awards will lead to systems built in America by American companies that will create American jobs rather than “outsourcing” to Russia.  He and NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Director stressed that some of those jobs will be at KSC or on the “Space Coast” in general, referring to the area of Florida that includes KSC and the adjoining Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  That section of Florida was hard hit by the layoffs following termination of the space shuttle program.

Boeing’s CST-100  would be launched aboard Atlas V rockets, which are built by the United Launch Alliance, a joint Boeing-Lockheed Martin company.  Boeing already has received awards from NASA’s commercial crew program under two previous “commercial crew development” (CCDev) rounds.  Boeing was the prime contractor for the International Space Station, is part of the United Space Alliance that operated the space shuttle, and over the past decades acquired the companies that built the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules as well as the space shuttle orbiters.

SpaceX is developing the Dragon capsule, which is launched on SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 rocket.   The company successfully launched a cargo-carrying verison of Dragon in May which was developed through NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.  NASA astronauts berthed it to the ISS and after several days it unberthed and returned to Earth, landing in the ocean.  SpaceX is developing a version capable of carrying people through CCDev2 and the new CCiCAP awards.  Elon Musk said today that his company had invested over $1 billion of its own money in Dragon and Falcon 9 on top of the money it has received through the NASA programs.

Sierra Nevada is developing the Dream Chaser spacecraft that, like CST-100, would be launched on an Atlas V.  However, DreamChaser is a “lifting body” with wings rather than a capsule.  The design is based on work done by NASA decades ago under the HL-20 program.   Sierra Nevada received awards under CCDev and CCDev2.  At a press conference, Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems, said the company had received a total of $125 million from NASA to date and the company had invested “more than half” that much.   He downplayed the significance of the discrepancy between the amount his company will receive under the CCiCAP award versus the others, emphasizing that Dream Chaser will be launched on a proven launch vehicle — the Atlas V has been launched over 30 times already — unlike the Falcon 9, and Dream Chaser is a “mature design” that NASA worked on for 10 years and Sierra Nevada has worked on for another eight.  Thus he believes his company is not lagging behind the others.

The Atlas V needs to be “human-rated” first.   Today it launches only satellites, not people, and additional systems — such as a launch abort system — must be added to make it safer for crews.    The Atlas V is powered by Russian RD-180 engines which may undermine the rationale that these are “American” systems.  Sirangelo dismissed that argument, however, noting that the system NASA currently depends upon — Soyuz — is 100% Russian while the majority of the Atlas V is American.

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