The commercial crew funding level NASA received for the remainder of this fiscal year likely will force agency managers to drop their goal of supporting more than one space taxi to lift astronauts to the International Space Station at competitive prices. It also may lengthen the time it takes to get U.S.-launched crews off the ground.

As the private sector advances in the push to replace the space shuttle for U.S. access to low Earth orbit (LEO), the rules—and the potential rewards—are changing. To help ensure crew safety, NASA is shifting to a more rigorous contracting approach than the Space Act agreements used in vehicle development.

This will increase the financial burden on companies in the running for the agency's crew-transport business. But it also will increase the incentive for players in the new game to look for revenue beyond NASA—including overseas.

Proposals for the second phase of NASA's Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)-based safety procurement were due Jan. 22. The bidders essentially are trying to demonstrate to NASA that the government will have sufficient insight into their design and operations to trust them to fly its astronauts safely.

On the basis of those “Commercial Crew Transportation Capability Contract (CCtCap)” bids, NASA will choose proposals to certificate crew vehicles, launchers and ground systems for human missions to the space station, including at least one flight test all the way there. “One or more” cost-plus contracts will be awarded later this year, the agency states.

“NASA's CTS [crew transportation system] certification under CCtCap means that the Contractor's CTS has met NASA's safety requirements for transporting NASA's crew to the ISS,” the agency stated in its original request for proposal.

NASA is spending $1.1 billion in federal seed money to help Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX develop their commercial crew vehicles, and is providing Blue Origin with technical assistance to the same end. The three funded companies have received an additional $30 million to detail how they will meet the agency's safety requirements (AW&ST Dec. 17, 2012, p. 31).

Initially, NASA wanted to help develop at least two commercial crew vehicles to maintain competition and hold down prices. The bidding that closed last week was “fully open,” inviting bids from beyond the three companies that received funds to prepare for it. But the idea of using government money to support competition faces skepticism from congressional appropriators, who worry that there is not enough to support even one vehicle (AW&ST April 1, 2013, p. 56).

Now NASA says it does not know if the $696 million it received for commercial crew vehicle development in the newly enacted omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2014 will be enough to begin commercial crew flights to the ISS by the end-of-2017 target date, even with one vehicle. While the figure was higher than past congressional levels for commercial crew development, it still falls short of the $821.4 million NASA has repeatedly emphasized it needs to meet the target.

“We are currently assessing the impacts of the level of funding approved for the commercial crew program,” an agency spokesman says.

All four companies developing crew vehicles for LEO hope to find other uses for their hardware, and all are pursuing private customers as well as the U.S. government. SpaceX has launched two commercial communications satellites on the Falcon 9 rocket it originally developed with NASA funds to deliver cargo to the space station. Boeing—which says the business case for its CST-100 crew capsule closes on NASA business alone—also has a deal with Bigelow Aerospace to deliver passengers to that company's planned inflatable commercial space stations (AW&ST Oct. 3, 2011, p. 56).

Secretive Blue Origin, which draws most of its funding from founder Jeff Bezos, is at work on suborbital and orbital human spaceflight for both commercial and government use (AW&ST Dec. 9, 2013, p. 29). And Sierra Nevada recently announced agreements with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) to explore future collaboration on its Dream Chaser orbital reusable lifting body vehicle (AW&ST Jan. 13, p. 18).

“We realize this is a very critical time, a very important time in space for all of us, certainly in the United States,” says Mark Sirangelo, who heads Sierra Nevada's space unit. “Being able to bring on strong partners like ESA and DLR for us is a significant step forward in our ability to bring Dream Chaser to the next level, and certainly in our ability to continue to support the mission of low Earth orbit.”

Sierra Nevada suffered an apparent setback at the end of it first autonomous Dream Chaser drop test last year when one of the landing gears failed to deploy for the runway landing that is unique for the vehicle (AW&ST Nov. 4, 2013, p. 28). Sirangelo says the problem—hydraulic fluid contamination in a system not planned for spaceflight—is easily fixed, and the company is moving ahead with plans to assemble and launch its vehicle—on the Atlas V—from facilities at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Despite the landing glitch, NASA awarded the management-owned private company the final payment under its commercial crew development-2 Space Act agreement. Sierra Nevada is working its way through the next phase of development, a $212.5 million effort known in the acronym-rich NASA-contracting lingo as CCiCap (Commercial Crew Integrated Capability).

“Our partners have steadily moved pieces from the drawing boards and computer screens to factory floors and test stands across the country,” says Kathy Lueders, NASA's acting Commercial Crew Program manager.

Boeing, which won a $460 million piece of the $1.1 billion CCiCap pie, completed its detailed design reviews last year with the vehicle's service module propulsion system. It also has demonstrated the data links and interfaces between NASA's Mission Control Center-Houston and its Avionics Software Integration Facility, which is developing the integrated training software for the CST-100.

Rounding out the CCiCap effort with a $440 million Space Act agreement, SpaceX is probably closest to being ready to fly a crew to the ISS. Its Dragon capsule, developed under a separate NASA seed-money program, was designed for human spaceflight from the beginning. It is already proving its value as the only large vehicle flying today that can handle station “down-mass” with reentry and an ocean splashdown as well as deliveries.

The company also upgraded and flew the Falcon 9 for cargo and crew missions, rearranging the plumbing and support structure for its nine uprated Merlin 1D engines and expanding its propellant load by 60% with longer tanks for improved performance. In December 2013 the company demonstrated the main parachutes for the Dragon crew capsule with a drop test from a helicopter hovering 8,000 ft. above the Pacific. Two drogue chutes were followed by the three mains before splashdown; the Erickson Sky Crane helicopter recovered the test article from the water.

Like SpaceX, Blue Origin has developed its own rocket engine—designated the BE-3—and has tested it through the duty cycle it would need to launch and return its planned New Shepherd suborbital vehicle. But in running at full throttle, generating 110,000 lb. thrust for 145 sec., then shutting down for 4.5 min., and restarting to throttle back to 25,000-lb. thrust, the company apparently met its mission duty cycle engine-test milestone for its unfunded CCiCap Space Act agreement as well.

That sort of ingenuity epitomizes the sort of private-sector efficiency NASA is trying to capture for cost-saving as it shifts to commercial access to LEO.

“NASA has pursued a balance between commercial industry practices and government requirements in an attempt to provide an acceptable and flexible solution to all parties,” the agency says of the commercial crew effort.