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NASA selects winners of first commercial crew contest

Posted: February 2, 2010

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NASA awarded $50 million in stimulus money to five companies Monday, a small sum of seed money but a critical first step in the agency's new capacity as a supporter of commercial human spaceflight.

The money will go toward developing enabling technologies for both emerging start-up companies and contractors experienced in space missions.

"Today we are using stimulus funds to help drive the beginnings of a commercial crew industry and the as many as 5,000 new jobs that industry suggests it can create," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told reporters Monday.

NASA is signing Space Act Agreements with the following companies under the Commercial Crew Development contest:

  • Sierra Nevada Corp. of Louisville, Colo., will receive $20 million.

  • Boeing Co. of Houston will receive $18 million.

  • United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colo., will receive $6.7 million.

  • Blue Origin of Kent, Wash., will receive $3.7 million.

  • Paragon Space Development Corp. of Tucson, Ariz., will receive $1.4 million

    Each company is providing matching funding from other sources.

    Sierra Nevada's $20 million award will go toward development of the Dream Chaser lifting body space plane. The Dream Chaser, designed to launch vertically and land on a runway, is based on NASA's HL-20 lifting body concept by the Langley Research Center

    The Dream Chaser spacecraft would launch on an Atlas 5 rocket. Credit: Sierra Nevada
    Sierra Nevada, through its Space Dev subsidiary, proposed the Dream Chaser for NASA's commercial cargo program but lost to Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Orbital Sciences Corp.

    The Dream Chaser could be ready for launch by 2014 on United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 rocket, said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president for Sierra Nevada's space systems division.

    Michael Gass, ULA CEO, told Spaceflight Now on Monday his company would spend its $6.7 million to help pay for an emergency detection system to sniff out imminent failures on its Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets.

    The emergency detection system would warn of problems in time to execute an abort if crews were riding aboard the rocket. Developing the EDS is the "first step in human-rating our already flight-proven vehicles," Gass said.

    "With human spaceflight, the most important thing you have to do to be able to have a potential loss of mission, but not lose the crew, is having a safe abort scenario," Gass said in an interview Monday.

    The EDS would consist of an electronics box to monitor several dozen parameters for signs of anomalies.

    "The biggest value of this new opportunity is being able to synergize our national security business with this NASA commercial crew opportunity," Gass said.

    Boeing's CCDev concept would leverage the company's experience as the prime contractor for the U.S. segment of the International Space Station.

    "Boeing's knowledge of the space station and our long history of supporting NASA with proven human-rated systems should allow us to work closely with NASA to develop a commercially viable, yet safe, crew transportation system," said Keith Reiley, the company's CCDev program manager.

    The proposed Boeing spacecraft could be flexible enough to launch on several different rockets, according to industry officials.

    Blue Origin, led by founder Jeff Bezos, is getting $3.7 million and Paragon Space Development Corp. is slated to receive $1.4 million in CCDev money.

    Paragon is a key subcontractor in the environmental control and life support system for the now-shelved Orion spacecraft. Paragon could provide similar services in the commercial human spaceflight arena.

    Missing from the awards was SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk now developing the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft to ferry cargo to the International Space Station.

    Musk said he was not surprised by SpaceX's absence in the Commercial Crew Development contract because the funding is slated to go toward basic technologies, many of which SpaceX has already developed.

    The cargo (left) and crew (right) versions of Dragon would launch on the Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX
    The most significant addition to outfit the Dragon for human passengers is a launch abort system that would whisk astronauts away from a failing rocket, according to Musk.

    A crew-carrying Dragon could be ready within about three years of a full contract award, Musk said.

    The Dragon will also need crew controls, seats and an upgraded life support system.

    The CCDev contracts are just the beginning, according to NASA.

    The agency will mount a much more comprehensive industrial competition before selecting commercial providers to transport astronauts to low Earth orbit, but the timing of acquisition and procurement for such a program remains undefined.

    The 2011 NASA budget requested by President Obama on Monday includes $6 billion for commercial crew programs over the next five years.

    "Commercial crew will reduce the gap in U.S. human spaceflight by using launch vehicles that are either already flying today or are close to launch, such as the Atlas, Taurus, and Falcon," said Bretton Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. "To build orbital capsules for these existing launch vehicles is on a comparable level to the Gemini program in the 1960s, which required only about three years from contract signed to the first flight of a crew."

    The commercial crew venture may help form unlikely partnerships between traditional aerospace contractors and smaller businesses.

    "I think they want to leverage the entire space community's expertise and figure out to deliver the best value for our nation to move forward," Gass said. "You want to get an opportunity to have new entrants, but you also need to honor the experience and expertise that comes with 50 years of experience."

    Alexander agreed companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp. will continue to fill important roles in human spaceflight.