NASA is keeping its technical bases covered in the selection of Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada for serious government money to help develop a commercial alternative to Russia's Soyuz for launching astronauts.

Chosen to negotiate Space Act agreements for the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) seed-money effort, the three companies are taking widely different approaches to transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.

And the division of more than $1.1 billion in federal funds over the next two years is part of a “two-and-a-half” formula worked out with lawmakers worried about wasting money by stretching development competition for too long. And this funding mechanism will probably keep all three in the running long enough to bid on the next round. That will be for traditional federal acquisition contracts aimed at initial crew transport operations in 2017, with demonstration flights “by the middle of the decade.” Under the Space Act agreements, the companies will add their own funds to the government money.

Boeing has the simplest vehicle—a battery-powered capsule dubbed CST-100 that would be launched on an Atlas V and return to Earth on dry land under parachutes and cushioned by airbags on touchdown. It will receive $460 million over the base period of the Space Act agreement.

SpaceX has already sent its Dragon cargo-carrier to the ISS on its Falcon 9 launch vehicle (AW&ST June 4, p. 36). It will use its $440 million in CCiCap funds to human-rate the capsule, which parachutes to a water landing.

Sierra Nevada has the most ambitious technology, a lifting-body spaceplane that takes off on an Atlas V and glides back to a runway landing. But under the “two-and-a-half” deal brokered by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the appropriations panel that funds NASA, the “Dream Chaser” craft will receive only $212.5 million for additional development. Still, that is almost twice what NASA already has put toward the highly reusable concept, and like the other two winners the company has commercial plans that go beyond trips to the ISS (AW&ST July 2, p. 37).

“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,” says William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human operations and exploration, who selected the three companies.

Competition is a key part of the NASA strategy for commercial crew transport, driving the hope that competing vehicles will hold crew transportation costs low enough to free government funds for deep-space exploration with the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle and heavy-lift Space Launch System NASA is developing in-house. But it remains to be seen whether Congress will back the commercial crew development effort with enough money to begin flying crews in 2017. Lawmakers are set to trim the agency's $830 million request for the effort in fiscal 2013, and Gerstenmaier says that money must be recouped in fiscal 2014 if the schedule is to be met (AW&ST June 25, p. 35).

The three CCiCap companies have received Space Act funding under two previous rounds of competition, as have others that did not receive CCiCap monies. Among the serious contenders who did not make the latest cut were the Blue Origin startup endowed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, the ATK/Astrium joint venture that has received technical help but no funding for its Liberty Launch Vehicle concept, and Houston-based Excalibur Almaz, which is receiving some technical help from NASA for its plan to recycle Russian military-space hardware into crew transport vehicles and space habitats.

As it happened, all three CCiCap winners presented status reports at the AIAA Joint Propulsion Conference in Atlanta last week. Boeing, which completed hot-fire and cold-flow tests of the orbital maneuvering and attitude control system for the CST-100 capsule in July, has a program planning milestone set for September, according to Boeing Space Explorations, Commercial Programs Vice President John Mulholland.

Designed for as many as 10 flights into orbit, the CST-100 will be configured with a replaceable service module. The capsule, which houses the crew with a pressurized structure built by Spincraft, will return for a dry landing at Edwards AFB, Calif., or possibly White Sands, N.M.

“Because of the relatively limited cross-range capability of the CST-100, we're also looking for a third landing site in CONUS, [the contiguous U.S.]” Mulholland says.

With Boeing and Sierra Nevada planning at least their early flights on the Atlas V, human-rating that launch vehicle is an important part of both companies' integrated launch system plans.

ULA Business Development Vice President George Sowers says the bulk of items have now been completed in the design equivalency review (DER) assessment of NASA's human-rating requirements for the Atlas. Of the total assessed to date, “80% are dispositioned already, and we're still three to four years away from launching a human. We're still looking at around 20%, or 26 specific items, though most of them require integration of the spacecraft from this point,” he adds.

Sierra Nevada continues to ramp-up testing of the hybrid motors that it plans to use to power the Dream Chaser. Two of the rockets, each powered by a combination of nitrous oxide (N2O) and a form of synthetic rubber known as hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB), will power the HL-20 lifting body-derived vehicle. Based on the SS1 motors developed for the SpaceShipOne, the Dream Chaser engines will be configured with nozzles with an expansion ratio of 10:1.

The vehicle will also have 27 Aerojet-developed reaction control thrusters, each rated at 75 lb. Fueled by ethanol, the thrusters share the N2O as a common oxidizer, saving around 12% in terms of required oxidizer load, according to Lisa Matthews, propulsion business development director for Sierra Nevada Space Systems Group.

The company recently completed “three hot-fires on one day, including one vacuum test, as well as an N20/ethanol test,” she adds. The same fuels are used for the RM2 motor in development for the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo. “We're seeing very good performance, and we have a rocket that is flight-capable. It will be ready for flight by the end of the year,” Matthews says.

SpaceX is also in the midst of testing the liquid fueled Super Draco rockets that will power its launch abort system. Adam Harris of SpaceX Government Sales says the escape system, which will also be used for other purposes in the flight if not needed for launch abort, will be attached to the side of the Dragon capsule.

Consisting of eight rockets with a combined thrust of around 15,000 lb., the launch abort system “can be used for escape all the way to orbit. It also gives us the benefit of using propulsion on way down if the escape system was not needed. Using it we can stabilize the descent on the way down and we hope to get to the point where we can use it to land on land,” he says.