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Boeing, SpaceX Race to Station

Published by Klaus Schmidt on Wed Oct 1, 2014 10:13 pm via: NASA
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*NOTE: While NASA has awarded this contract, NASA has instructed Boeing and SpaceX to stop performance on the contract while the GAO resolves a protest.*

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) remains a trendsetter in human spaceflight with the Sept. 16 naming of two companies to build the next generation of American space systems capable of carrying astronauts into low-Earth orbit. The program retained the advantages of competition by laying out criteria that permits each design to progress on its own merits through the rigorous demands of manufacturing, testing and certification.

Image Credit: NASA/Greg Lee

Image Credit: NASA/Greg Lee

Boeing and SpaceX each was awarded a contract to complete designs of the CST-100/ United Launch Alliance Atlas V and Crew Dragon/Falcon 9 v1.1 integrated systems, respectively, under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability known as CCtCap. The goal of the contract is to complete the certification efforts in 2017.

However, Kathy Lueders, manager of CCP, said, “We’re not going to sacrifice crew safety for that goal. We’re going to work methodically with our partners as we move forward and make sure their systems can perform to the safety requirements that we have prior to being certified.”

The companies will build and test the systems and, after certification has been achieved, will fly two and as many as six missions to and from the International Space Station. Each post-certification mission will carry four astronauts to the station. The total potential contract value including certification, the maximum number of missions, and special study services is $4.2 billion for Boeing and $2.6 billion for SpaceX.

“It was not an easy choice, but it was the best choice,” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said during the award announcement at Kennedy Space Center, home of CCP.

Competition has played a substantial role in the program. NASA has worked with eight different partners since 2010, ranging from the development of subsystems to spacecraft systems and boosters, before getting to fully integrated spacecraft and rocket designs and initial certification plans.

This final development and certification phase will see the two selected designs manufactured and flown, along with establishing the ground and mission operations architectures. Like many other elements of the program, it differs substantially from NASA’s traditional approach, which was to design its own transportation system, then pick a contractor to build it.

“It’s really amazing to note just how much has been accomplished in such a short period of time,” Lueders said. “Now we’re getting to the real exciting part of final development of a system: the smoke and fire testing, the manufacturing, the flight testing, the certification of safety and then full missions to the station.”

NASA’s objective is to enable more research to take place on the International Space Station and to end America’s sole reliance on Russia for transportation to the orbiting laboratory.

“We can double the amount of scientific research performed on the station today,” Lueders said. “We’ll also be able to return powered cargo with our crews and retrieve critical science within two hours of landing. This is huge for researchers here in the U.S. who are working on time-sensitive science investigations.”

The new spacecraft also will serve as lifeboats for space station crew members who could take shelter inside during emergency situations or, if the need arose, even evacuate the station. That necessity is currently carried out using Russian Soyuz capsules, each of which holds three people.

Although the announcement established the goals of the latest contract, CCP continues its involvement with partners performing work through ongoing Space Act Agreements. SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation are completing milestones under the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) phase, which will see SpaceX pad and launch abort tests of the Dragon spacecraft and another Dream Chaser free-flight test, respectively. Blue Origin also is advancing its spacecraft design through unfunded Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) milestones.

“We feel it’s very important for the commercial industry to continue to mature their capabilities. As a program, we gain a lot of benefit from continuing to work with different partners who have different solutions,” Lueders said. “Keeping our fingers on the pulse of industry out there is critical because it continues to provide us with innovative ways for us to be able to do business together.”

A week following the award announcement, CCP managers and their counterparts already were preparing for the first sessions under the Certification Baseline Review, the first milestone aimed at completing the certification process. The review will cover the design and development status of Boeing and SpaceX and their progress in meeting safety requirements necessary to achieve certification.

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