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NASA awards $1.1 billion to develop three commercial space taxis

by Tariq Malik, Managing Editor, and Denise Chow, Staff Writer

NASA's awarded three U.S. companies with a total of $1.1 billion to further develop commercial spacecraft to launch astronauts.
August 3, 2012

— NASA revealed new agreements with three private spaceflight companies on Friday (Aug. 3) — deals that total $1.1 billion in funding for new commercial spaceships to launch American astronauts into space.

The deals represent the final round of NASA's Commercial Crew integrated Capability program (CCiCap), which aims to foster the design and development of new private space vehicles to fill the current gap in U.S. human space launch capabilities.

The selected companies are:

  • Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), headquartered in Louisville, Colo.

  • Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), headquartered in Hawthorne, Calif.

  • The Boeing Company, headquartered in Houston

As part of the new agreements, Sierra Nevada will receive $212.5 million, SpaceX will be funded $440 million, and Boeing will receive $460 million. Boeing and SpaceX are developing space capsules, with Sierra Nevada taking a different path with its winged "Dream Chaser" lifting-body design.

"The ultimate goal of our commercial crew program is to bring American launches right back here to American soil," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (right) announced the CCiCap awards at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on Friday, Aug. 3 (NASA)

NASA retired its 30-year space shuttle program last year and is currently dependent on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to ferry Americans to the International Space Station. The space agency's latest deal with Russia's Federal Space Agency carries a cost per seat of about $63 million. Once commercial spaceships are proven to be safe and reliable, NASA intends to purchase flights for its astronauts to and from the space station.

"Our commercial crew and cargo efforts are based on a simple but powerful principle," Bolden said Friday during a press conference at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. "By investing in American companies and American ingenuity we are spurring commercial companies to deliver more bang for the buck."

Between today and May 31, 2014, the companies funded under the CCiCap agreements will further develop and test their spacecraft designs. NASA expects that, following the completion of these milestones, manned demonstration flights to low-Earth orbit should launch by the middle of the decade.

NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCDEv) official logo. (NASA)

"For 50 years American industry has helped NASA push the boundaries enabling us to live, work, and learn in the unique environment of microgravity and low Earth orbit," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. "The benefits to humanity from these endeavors are incalculable."

"We're counting on the creativity of industry to provide the next generation of transportation to low Earth orbit and expand human presence, making space accessible and open for business," Gerstenmaier said in a statement.

Diverse spaceship options

NASA said the CCiCap selections fund a diverse group of commercial spacecraft designs, with each company taking a unique approach to its spacecraft design. Each of the three companies winning awards must pay their own share of testing and development, space agency officials said.

"What that means to the tax payer is that NASA is not paying 100 percent of this development cost," Ed Mango, NASA's Commercial Crew Program manager, said. "They are also bringing money to the table."

Artist concept of Sierra Nevada Corp's Dream Chaser lifting body vehicle launching atop of an Atlas V rocket. (SNC)

Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser space plane is a reusable winged spacecraft designed to launch seven astronauts into low-Earth orbit. The spacecraft will launch on an Atlas V rocket and lift off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and is an evolution of a former NASA test vehicle, the HL-20.

Dream Chaser will launch vertically and land on NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility runway, but can be retargeted to use airport runways in case of an emergency or different mission, explained Phil McAlister, the director of NASA's commercial spaceflight development. Sierra Nevada has nine milestones to meet in order to receive the full $212.5 million of its award. The company is targeting for its first manned test flight by 2016.

"We are very pleased today to receive the award from NASA as a recognition of our work," Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada Corp's Space Systems, told reporters after NASA's announcement. "We think the whole program is a very successful public-private partnership."

New space capsules

SpaceX, meanwhile, is upgrading its unmanned Dragon capsule to carry seven astronauts on round-trip flights to the International Space Station. Like the unpiloted Dragon capsule, which made its first trip to the station in May, the crewed Dragon will launch atop of SpaceX's own Falcon 9 rocket from the company's launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

McAlister said SpaceX plans to land the Dragon capsule on land (the unmanned capsule that flew in May made an ocean splashdown), but the drop zone for the manned vehicle has not yet been decided. While SpaceX officials are targeting a crewed test flight of 2015 (a date based on full funding and successful testing), NASA is anticipating operational manned flights by 2017, McAlister added.

NASA astronaut Rex Walheim seen inside an engineering model of SpaceX's Dragon capsule during a layout review. (SpaceX)

SpaceX is led by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and already has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to provide unmanned Dragon flights to the space station for cargo deliveries. To receive its full $440 million award, SpaceX will have to complete 14 milestones, including two demo flights (one on Earth, the other in flight) to test the Dragon capsule's launch abort system.

Musk described NASA's funding announcement today as a "decisive milestone for human spaceflight." He said that SpaceX is still studying how [his company's] launch abort system tests will be performed, but they will be webcast and televised live.

"These are going to be some exciting tests," Musk said in a call with reporters. "We anticipate some really exciting stuff in the American space program in the years ahead."

At the same time, Boeing is developing its own CST-100 capsule, a seven-seat vehicle that will launch into space atop an Atlas V and make a land touchdown, McAlister said. The company is aiming to make its first crewed test flight in 2016.

"We come at this [project] from a position of knowledge and experience," said John Mulholland, program manager of Boeing Commercial Programs within Boeing's space exploration division. "We have that experience we're able to use as we incoporate these approaches and streamline capabilities to make sure we're not sacrificing anything on crew safety or mission success."

"It give us a leg up on other competitors who don't have that experience base," Mulholland said.

Artist concept of Boeing's CST-100 crewed spacecraft. (Boeing)

Boeing's CST-100 design won the biggest slice of CCiCap funding, but also has the most milestones to meet. In order to receive the full $460 million award, Boeing must complete 19 different milestones, McAlister said. The last milestone on that list is a complete critical design review of the entire CST-100 capsule and Atlas V launch system — a major feat, he added.

"We are really excited about today's announcement [and] certainly appreciate the confidence expressed by NASA in selecting us," said John Elbon, Boeing Space Exploration vice president and general manager. "In 1916, Bill Boeing started the Boeing Company, and we've obviously grown into a large company since then, have learned a lot over that time, and are applying that knowledge to what we're doing on commercial crew."

"It'll be really sweet to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the company with the first crewed flight of CST-100," he said.

Unfunded agreements possible

Seven companies entered NASA's CCiCap competition. Three of them failed to meet NASA's basic requirements for consideration, while the fourth — Alliant Techsystems, or ATK, of Utah — came in just behind the three selected, Gerstenmaier said.

ATK is the company that built the reusable solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle. With the shuttle program retired, the company is developing a private rocket called Liberty in partnership with the European company EADS Astrium. The Liberty rocket and space capsule will use a 5 segment solid rocket booster and European upper stage to launch a crewed space capsule into low-Earth orbit.

The capsule could ferry crews or cargo to the International Space Station, ATK has said. As part of NASA's previous commercial crew program round, ATK had an unfunded agreement to use the agency's expertise while developing the Liberty rocket and spacecraft.

Artist concept of ATK's Liberty spacecraft delivering a modular cargo module to the International Space Station. (ATK)

McAlister said NASA is open to possible further unfunded agreements in the new commercial crew program round, but companies like ATK must make their own decisions on whether they want to enter such an arrangement.

Also not included in this latest round of funding was Blue Origin of Kent., Wash., a company owned by billionaire founder Jeff Bezos that is developing private spacecraft for suborbital and orbital flights. The company did receive a NASA funding award in 2011 for its orbital crew vehicle, but wasn't among the seven vying for a spot in the CCiCap round, NASA officials said.

In addition to its work to spur private spaceflight, NASA is focusing on developing its own heavy-lift rocket, called the Space Launch System (SLS), and a space capsule, called Orion, for exploration missions beyond low-Earth orbit. The agency has the goal of exploring a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and traveling on to Mars by the 2030s.'s assistant managing editor Clara Moskowitz contributed to this report.

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CCiCap: Sierra Nevada Corp.

Video credit: NASA

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CCiCap: SpaceX

Video credit: NASA

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CCiCap: SpaceX

Video credit: NASA

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