NASA will need something like the $830 million it isn't going to get this year in later funding years to shift its space station-bound astronauts from Russian Soyuz seats onto private U.S. space taxis as planned.

Administrator Charles Bolden and William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for human exploration and operations, say they need as much as Congress can give them for fiscal 2013, plus big boosts in fiscal 2014-17, to meet their current schedule for flying the first station crew on a commercial vehicle in 2017.

Congress is on track to cut NASA's $830 million request for commercial crew development seed money to $525 million in the appropriations bill now under consideration (AW&ST June 18, p. 26). Gerstenmaier says the agency will need at least the original request in the out years to stay on track.

“What we want is to see the president's request, which was the $830 million,” says Bolden. “If that's not possible, we're asking for the maximum amount that the Congress can see themselves to grant for 2013, and then, as I have exchanged with Congressman [Frank] Wolf [R-Va.], we will ask for a significant increase in 2014 and the other years if we are to hold to the 2017 first-flight date for commercial crew to the International Space Station.”

Wolf and Bolden also agreed NASA will pick three companies to negotiate for 21-month Space Act Agreements (SAAs) to complete Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) development, instead of the single company Wolf's appropriations subcommittee wanted to help hold down costs. Under that agreement, the agency would provide “two-and-a-half” shares of seed money to the three companies as they refine their full systems, including launchers and operations.

Cautioning that the issue is “procurement-sensitive,” Gerstenmaier says only that funding levels will be negotiated against milestones the companies must meet, with the “one-half” share likely to have fewer milestones.

“It's fairly subjective,” he says. “The number of milestones approved will be less for one of the providers, potentially, than the other providers, and if you ask me does it exactly add up to two-and-a-half, it's not going to.”

The possible awards will remain in the $300-500 million range as NASA originally announced, subject to negotiation once companies are picked, he says. That could come as early as mid-July or as late as the end of August.

Currently there are four companies working on commercial crew vehicles with federal funds under the second round of NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) effort—Boeing, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX. Other potential commercial crew vehicles are being developed with unfunded SAAs, including the ATK-led Liberty rocket and crew vehicle (AW&ST May 14, p. 24). NASA stresses the companies will be picked in “a full and open competition” that is not limited to those receiving funds.

In testimony to the Senate subcommittee that authorizes NASA spending, Gerstenmaier said the agency plans to buy two commercial crew flights a year, perhaps with four crew seats instead of the three a Soyuz vehicle can carry. The rest of the vehicle could carry cargo or perhaps non-NASA “spaceflight participants.”

The extra ISS crewmember will bring the station to its design capacity of seven, he says, allowing more research than the 35 total hours per week the three-member U.S.-side crew is now achieving (see p. 38). The cost per seat is budgeted at the $63 million NASA is paying Russia for Soyuz as a precaution, he says, although the agency expects the cost to be lower.

That will be critical for realizing NASA's hope that affordable commercial crew transport to low Earth orbit will spark a private economy there. Michael Gold, director of D.C. Operations for Bigelow Aerospace, told the Senate panel that lower human space-transport costs underpin his company's business case for accommodating researchers from nations and organizations that lack their own orbital research facilities.

“We are extraordinarily dependent on the success of the commercial crew program,” Gold told Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who chaired the hearing on the risks, opportunities and oversight of commercial space. “I can assure you that if we are forced to abide by the pricing that currently exists, our business plan and, frankly, any business plan would be unsustainable. Those prices must come down from the $60-plus million range; they must come down dramatically for there to be a business case from the private sector.”

As development of commercial crew vehicles matures, NASA and the FAA have reached an agreement on how they will oversee the safety of the crews who fly in them. At least until 2015, when the FAA gains authority to regulate human spaceflight, NASA will certify the safety of the vehicles that carry its crews and the FAA will decide if all public safety requirements have been met for launch and reentry, including passage through the National Airspace System.

“If NASA is paying for the service, if we're buying the vehicle to transport NASA or any of our partner crew members to the International Space Station, then we have to assure that they've met the human rating standards and our requirements for crew safety,” says Bolden. “Every flight will have to meet the FAA requirements and standards for safety of the public, both during ascent and during the final reentry. So the FAA is always involved.”

Should Bigelow's inflatable orbiting habitats or other orbital destinations become available for non-NASA personnel to visit, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation will license ascent and entry, and require crew and passengers to sign informed consent agreements.

“On the FAA side the licensing requirements and our assurance of public safety is the same, whether it's a NASA mission or a pure commercial mission,” says acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who joined Bolden in a telephone press conference on the agreement.