It's still a “Field of Dreams” proposition—“if you build it, they will come.” Even so, NASA's as-yet-unrealized efforts to offload routine human space access onto the private sector is beginning to ripple across the U.S. launch industry in ways that could go well beyond transporting people and their stuff into space.

Brash entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who openly declares his intention to take over the worldwide launch industry with lower-cost launchers than the competition's, are exerting downward price pressure on traditional launch-vehicle manufacturers. And the possibility of an off-planet economy in low Earth orbit (LEO) has triggered a new round of innovative launcher designs, not all of them “paper rockets” and some of them quite different from traditional vehicles.

“We've selected the Atlas V for our test flights through the Commercial Crew Program,” says John Mulholland, vice president and manager of Commercial Programs for Boeing Space Exploration. “But we will continue to maintain our design to be compatible with multiple launch vehicles so that we can competitively procure launch vehicles in the future, which is important for us to maintain best value, obviously. The launch vehicle is such a huge portion of our offer.”

Mulholland's group has just completed the preliminary design review on the CST-100, Boeing's entry into the NASA-run commercial crew development competition. Two other teams have baselined the Atlas V to launch their space taxis, but Atlas-builder United Launch Alliance (ULA) is not resting on its laurels. The Boeing/Lockheed Martin joint venture is scrambling to cut costs of its Atlas V and Delta IV launcher lines to meet the anticipated competition from Musk and other startups, while stressing the demonstrated reliability of their products and working to improve them (see p. 44).

And as ULA goes after the nascent human space-flight market with the Atlas V it uses to launch big government satellites and space probes, new entrants in the commercial cargo and crew game are not pinning their hopes on the human market alone. If a launcher is reliable enough to send astronauts aloft, the argument goes, it certainly is reliable enough to handle high-value satellites and other spacecraft, and perhaps open up new space businesses such as satellite servicing and orbital tourism.

If it all works out—and that remains a pretty large “if”—NASA's commercial approach to carrying astronauts to low Earth orbit could lower the cost of space access to the point that the business cases for new LEO applications can close.

Beginning with the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program initiated by then-Administrator Michael Griffin, NASA has invested about $925 million of taxpayer seed money to help create a private human spaceflight industry. That money has attracted significant private investment, and the agency is optimistic that this can generate one or more new ways to get humans and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for less money than traditional government procurements.

The COTS program could start to pay off as early as next month, provided Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX) succeeds in getting its next Dragon capsule off the ground with its Falcon 9 rocket and berthed at the ISS for the first time, carrying 1,000 lb. of food and other relatively low-value cargo. Orbital Sciences Corp., NASA's other COTS partner, also hopes to reach the station this year with its Cygnus cargo vehicle riding the company's new Antares liquid-fueled launcher.

That could be just the beginning. With the space shuttle fleet retired, NASA is paying Russia more than $60 million a seat to train and fly astronauts to the ISS in Soyuz capsules. Starting with $50 million in federal economic stimulus package funding in fiscal 2009, NASA has been seeding development of commercial space taxis under its Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) and Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiatives.

The latter has attracted several different proposals for full-scale systems that would ferry ISS crews to orbit beginning as early as 2017. Funding commercial crew is contentious in Washington, and the first human flights already have been delayed a year because Congress does not want NASA to put all of its eggs in the commercial crew basket (AW&ST Dec. 19, 2011, p. 20).

At the heart of the commercial crew thrust is a change in the basic approach to spaceflight safety. Instead of costly efforts to install launch system redundancy for fail-safe reliability, the new commercial crew vehicles will rely on sophisticated escape systems to safely get away from a failing rocket.

That requires quick-response health-monitoring software in the rocket to trigger an abort. And it is driving development of cost-saving escape-propulsion systems that—unlike the escape towers NASA used in the 1960s—retain their propellant after a successful launch for orbital maneuvering. ULA won $6.7 million in the first round of CCDev awards to start developing an emergency detection system (EDS) for the Atlas V. And the company has continued testing and qualification on its own dime, in partnership with NASA, via an unfunded Space Act agreement.

“There will be a certain category of failures where you're not going to want to have any men in the loop at all,” says George Sowers, ULA'S vice president of business development and advanced programs. “Failure is so imminent and the consequences are so fast that you just want the computer to make the decision and pop it off. Some warning light will come on and the astronauts will have time to clench their guts and away they go.”

Other failures may develop more slowly, giving range safety officers, the ULA launch control room and even the crew itself time to decide whether to abort, based on information they will be receiving from the EDS. Essentially a software package, the system will draw on data from about 80 instruments already flying on the Atlas V—from engine rpms to tank pressure to acceleration rates and directions.

Even without the added layer of safety for crews that the EDS provides, reliability played a big role in the choice of Atlas V as a crew-launch vehicle by Blue Origin, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp. “They've had 29 launches on this version of the Atlas V, a 100% success rate, so for a crew transportation launch vehicle that was a clear choice for now,” says Boeing's Mulholland.

Sowers says the EDS will improve Atlas V reliability for all of its payloads—manned and unmanned—because of the added insight into the rocket's performance that it affords even without hardware upgrades. As part of its unfunded commercial crew work, ULA assessed how well Atlas V stacked up against NASA's human-ratings requirements.

“We've completed that, and we don't believe there are any design modifications we have to do to the Atlas rocket to meet those requirements,” he says. “We're not certified yet, and complete certification won't come until the next phase of the commercial crew program, but we did that hand-in-hand with NASA, and we feel really good about the ability of the Atlas rocket—with the addition of the emergency detection system—to meet the NASA requirements.”

At SpaceX, Musk says, the company's Falcon 9 rocket was built from the ground up to meet NASA's human-rating requirements, and will be ready to carry crew to the ISS as soon as Dragon's pusher-type abort system the company is developing with CCDev-2 funding is completed. NASA astronauts have been spending a lot of time in the company's Hawthorne, Calif., plant familiarizing themselves with the Dragon capsule's systems, which Musk expects their colleagues to be operating in space as early as next month. Company engineers have been working overtime to meet NASA's stringent requirements for getting close enough to the ISS for the station crew to grapple the Dragon with a robotic arm, berth it and open it to the station environment (AW&ST Feb. 13, p. 27). The first flight will combine two milestone missions to close out the company's COTS work, and Musk says he hopes to fly at least two Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) missions before the end of this year if NASA needs the supplies they can carry.

The Dragon capsule is designed to take 6,000 kg (13,200 lb.) to the ISS and return 3,000 kg to Earth. Musk is quick to point out that the down-mass capability is not shared by its COTS competitor, Orbital Sciences. “Orbital gets almost twice as much as we do per flight, but they don't bring anything back,” he says. “It's about twice the value for half the money.”

Under its initial CRS contract, SpaceX will be paid $1.6 billion for 12 cargo flights to the ISS, and Orbital $1.9 billion for eight flights. The fixed-price, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts each have a maximum potential value of $3.1 billion, although based on “known requirements,” NASA expects to spend a total of $3.5 billion on the commercial cargo missions combined.

Ultimately, the Dragon capsule and its Falcon 9 launcher are intended to be human-rated. While the company is working under a Space Act agreement with its cargo variant, it will go to the more rigorous Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) oversight when it comes to gaining NASA's approval to fly humans.

“Eventually we will begin a certification effort that will look fairly conventional in terms of what NASA will do to ensure that we have a level of safety and mission assurance needed to fly to ISS,” says Brent Jett, a two-time shuttle commander who serves as deputy manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program.

That approach will extend to any improvements in crew vehicle designs or launch vehicle changes. SpaceX plans to change engines after its first three commercial cargo flights, and Musk has high hopes for lowering his costs and customer prices with first- and second-stage upgrades by the time he intends to begin flying crews.

“We are aware that SpaceX does have an upgrade coming to the Falcon 9 that they intend to use for crew,” Jett says. “[I]f they win CCiCap, we would see in their certification plan . . . [just] how they would get comfortable certifying that vehicle. They're going to tell us how they would certify it, and then we'll balance that against how we would certify it, and be able to understand that delta of what we would be able to do under that certification contract [which is] going to come sometime in the future.”

This is an approach that will extend to all potential commercial crew transport providers. NASA is evaluating proposals it received last month under the CCiCap phase of the program, in which potential suppliers describe their overall systems, including launch vehicles, and tell NASA how they plan to meet its human-rating requirements. The agency hopes to award at least two Space Act agreements late in the summer, with a 21-month base period to push system design toward—if not past—critical design review, and to include “serious risk reduction,” with no promises after that.

“The whole idea there is we have a base period and then we have an optional period,” says Ed Mango, the Commercial Crew Program manager. “NASA will then decide if we want to continue on with the partners in that optional period, and that is at our discretion based on how they are performing during the base period, and also how we are doing at that point to deal with certification of a vehicle toward our requirements.”

Also in the mix with the SpaceX Dragon/Falcon 9 are the Atlas-launched vehicles under development by Boeing and Blue Origin, and a lifting body in development by Sierra Nevada. Blue Origins, a secretive operation bankrolled by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, builds on hydrogen-fueled vertical-takeoff-and-landing technology that NASA studied in the 1990s.

The Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser is based on NASA's old HL-20 lifting-body test vehicle, and adds a pair of hybrid rocket motors burning nitrous oxide and hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB) fuel—basically a kind of rubber—for abort or in-space operations. Either way, it returns to a runway landing, and that makes it reusable even with the expendable Atlas V as its lift to space, according to Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada's space systems chief.

“We expect to be less expensive than the cost of the Russians right now, per seat,” he says. “The other benefit in the Atlas is that if the two choices . . . made here are both Atlases, [the more Atlases produced], the lower . . . the cost.”

Particularly when combined with U.S. Air Force use of the Atlas V, the commercial crew business could lower the cost of access to LEO for all comers. But Mango stresses that competition is key, particularly early on. And that will be difficult, as Congress questions the expense of keeping at least potential operators in the running while NASA slows it internal SLS development (AW&ST March 12, p. 36).

“Our overall program approach is that we are going to need more than one company in this next phase, because we are not meeting, and I quote, 'NASA's requirements,' per se, so how do you get industry to try to get close,” says Mango. “You do that by having a competition. And that competition not only keeps the price down, but it also says 'hey, the other competitor is willing to meet or try to meet more of their customer needs.'”

The same would hold true during the safety certification phase, and in the actual contracting for services,” Mango adds. “That will be another FAR contract kind of acquisition approach. It is similar to something like what the launch services program uses” [for unmanned NASA launches].

Even if NASA winds up with only one commercial crew contractor, it could still gain competitive prices in launch services for its robotic space probes and Earth-observation satellites. With the Delta II out of production, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX and perhaps some of the other new launch systems in the works may go head-to-head for launch contracts on that class of vehicle.

Orbital decided not to compete in the commercial crew arena after losing out in its bid for CCDev-2 funding, but it hopes to gain the same economies of scale for unmanned launches with its Antares rocket—a kerosene-fueled vehicle that can deliver 6,120 kg to LEO from its new launch facility on Wallops Island, Va. (AW&ST Feb. 27, p. 35).

For its part, NASA is seeking $830 million in fiscal 2013 to invest in commercial crew. That is comparable to the $850 million it requested for the current fiscal year. When Congress whittled that figure down to $406 million, the agency was forced to delay its estimated start of commercial flights to the ISS to 2017 from 2016.

So far, it remains to be seen if the commercial approach actually will hold down costs once NASA begins buying crew flights. Boeing says its business case closes on the NASA missions alone—essentially two flights a year. But company officials also concede that the price per seat of a ride in the CST-100 would only be “competitive” with Soyuz seats, and not a dramatic drop.

Boeing also has partnerships with Space Adventures, which brokers Soyuz rides to the ISS at a reported $30 million a trip, and with Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow already has flown prototypes of its planned inflatable space habitats to orbit, and is marking time to see what happens with the NASA effort before it begins seriously marketing its capabilities. Potential customers are industrial users and sovereign nations that lack the wherewithal to develop their own space laboratories.

Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser will not only be reusable, but also reconfigurable for different types of missions, according to Sirangelo. These could include satellite-servicing flights with space-suited astronauts, a capability pioneered on the Hubble Space Telescope and lost with the shuttle's retirement. Like the SpaceX Dragon, the Dream Chaser will be designed to return scientific samples and other cargo from orbit—another potential market. Both vehicles also would have the capability to operate autonomously as unmanned or man-tended commercial laboratories.

But at this stage of the transition to the post-shuttle era, those sorts of commercial activities remain in the “Field of Dreams” realm, and the Dream Chaser and its on-orbit competitors have a long way to go before the customers will come.

Still, even without having flown, the NASA-backed commercial crew vehicles have created a space-launch market that did not exist before.

“Our position is, as these other emerging launch vehicles actually get to demonstrated reliability, necessary to ensure crew safely, we would absolutely consider using them,” says Boeing's Mulholland.