A journey of 1,000 parsecs begins with a single step, to paraphrase Lao Tzu. Before humans can explore the stars—or the Solar System—in person, we still must travel that first 100-km step through Earth's atmosphere.

Now that the space shuttle is a museum piece, human access to low Earth orbit is down to two spacecraft—Russia's venerable Soyuz capsule, and China's new Soyuz-derived Shenzhou. Today Shenzhou is the most modern operational human spacecraft flying, and it is likely to remain so for at least five more years.

Work is underway around the world on new ways to orbit humans and keep them alive in space. At least seven different orbital human-spaceflight vehicles are in development—most of them in the U.S.—and other longer-term work is beginning to take shape in India, Europe and elsewhere.

Not all of the vehicles in the computer-aided design (CAD) workstations today will fly, and some of those that manage to get off the ground once or twice won't be able to keep flying for lack of passengers. As it struggles to replace the shuttle, NASA has set up a competition to hold down development costs and perhaps influence the per-seat price of astronaut travel. But the U.S. agency does not plan to use all of the competing vehicles once the commercial crew capability becomes operational.

“We say 'likely one provider' in that region,” says William Gerstenmaier, who as associate administration for human exploration and operations is responsible for keeping crews on the International Space Station. “That avenue of competition up front also gives us some pretty strong benefits to help us get a good price coming out the other end, even though we may ultimately downselect to one contractor.”

Gerstenmaier is overseeing four human-vehicle developments with NASA funding, and holding the door open for at least three more. At the top end of the price list is the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle, a holdover from the defunct Constellation program that has already consumed more than $5 billion. Under NASA's post-Constellation space policy, as modified by Congress, Lockheed Martin is developing Orion for missions beyond low Earth orbit that would lift off atop the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS).

Also working with government funds are Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX), on three different commercial crew vehicles intended to take astronauts to the ISS. Building on the George W. Bush-administration commercial cargo program that will start delivering supplies to the space station this fall, the Obama administration is using federal funds as seed money for what it hopes will one day be a low-Earth-orbit economy.

In August, the U.S. government committed $1.1 billion in funding for the latest round of commercial crew vehicles—$460 million for Boeing's CST-100 and $440 million for the SpaceX Dragon, both of which are capsules. Another $212.5 million will support development of Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser lifting body. The smaller amount for the most ambitious design reflects pressure from Congress to minimize the up-front development expense, and recognizes the higher degree of development risk in the Dream Chaser.

“There's a lot more complexity with a winged vehicle, so our logic was 'why don't we let them try to buy down some of that complexity first and see how well that goes,'” says Gerstenmaier. “If I didn't think they had a chance of actually competing in the end, being in the potential finalists, we wouldn't have kept them in this phase.”

As with earlier commercial crew competitions, all of the money in the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) phase will be spent under Space Act agreements, which are less restrictive than traditional U.S. government procurements under the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). To address safety concerns growing out of reduced government oversight, NASA will also conduct a two-phase human-rating competition designed to deliver the necessary design data to agency safety engineers in parallel with vehicle development.

“If NASA were to delay certification activities, the development of industry's capabilities could eventually reach the point where any changes necessary to meet NASA requirements would likely not be technically feasible or affordable, potentially extending our reliance on foreign systems,” NASA states in a white paper on its commercial crew procurement plans.

The safety competition's 15-month first phase, expected to result in multiple $10 million awards in February 2013, is open to all comers. In addition to the three CCiCap winners, other potential bidders for the safety-review funding include ATK Aerospace Systems, Blue Origin and Excalibur Almaz. ATK is working with Astrium to build a big launch vehicle named Liberty, using a solid-fuel first stage based on the Constellation Ares I crew launch vehicle in the first-stage position, with an Ariane 5 main stage as the new vehicle's upper stage. Riding atop it would be a composite version of the aluminum capsule that was developed at NASA's Langley Research Center.

ATK lost out in the CCiCap bidding, but may still go ahead with the Liberty development without government seed money (see p. 44). Blue Origin, the secretive startup endowed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, did not enter the CCiCap competition, and has apparently decided to continue developing its orbital commercial crew vehicle with its own funds. If that is the case, it will need to enter the safety-review competition if it wants to fly NASA crews in the future. The same is true of Excalibur Almaz, a startup based on the Isle of Man that has bought surplus Soviet military crew vehicles with an eye to converting them to commercial operations (see p. 50).

None of the vehicles in development will come close to matching the unique capabilities of the space shuttle, with its reusability, 24,400-kg (53,680-lb.) payload to low Earth orbit, airlock for spacewalks and Canadian-built robotic arm. And despite NASA's effort to stiffen its insight under the Space Act agreements with what Gerstenmeier calls a “hybrid” approach to human safety, critics worry that the next vehicle will not be much safer than the shuttle, which cost 14 lives during 135 flights over 30 years of operation.

Joseph Dyer, chairman of the independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, calls the parallel development/certification approach a “workaround” that is unlikely to produce the desired safety levels, particularly as uncertain budgets generate downward pressure on safety spending.

“It is not yet clear to us how waivers and deviations will be approved, who is accountable, and how the process shall be administered,” says Dyer, a naval aviator who retired as a vice admiral. “[And] both from the Congress's and NASA's perspective, budget and budget stability are a significant challenge.”

Appearing with Dyer before the House Science Committee Sept. 14, Gerstenmaier noted that NASA is restricted to spending $406 million on commercial crew development this fiscal year in the absence of a fiscal 2013 budget figure from Congress. Beginning in fiscal 2014, the agency will need $830 million a year to meet its plan to fly humans in a commercial vehicle by the end of 2017.

Given election-year budget politics on Capitol Hill, and the possibility of a spending sequestration early next year that the White House budget office says would chop almost $1.7 billion from NASA's budget, many lawmakers doubt that schedule can be met.

“I think we need NASA to give us a cost and schedule estimate that is based on more realistic budgetary assumptions, so we can see what is most likely to actually happen, something we require for all of NASA's other major programs,” says Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.).

Gerstenmaier testified that Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX collectively are covering only 10-20% of the development costs of their vehicles with internal funds. Even at that surprisingly low level of private investment, given past administration claims about the prospects for a private space economy, there is no guarantee that the commercial crew vehicles will be cheaper than the Soyuz seats NASA is using today.

In its planning for the commercial crew vehicles, NASA is budgeting the roughly $62 million a seat it pays Russia for Soyuz transportation and training, Gerstenmaier says. Given the pace of commercial crew development, the agency will need to negotiate at least one more purchase of Soyuz seats to cover the period between summer 2016 and the shift to U.S. commercial crew vehicles. That, in turn, will require an extension of the congressional waiver in missile-proliferation law that allows NASA to buy space hardware from Russia to support ISS operations. And Soyuz lead-time considerations mean negotiations with Russia must start next year if the vehicles are to be ready when the current contract expires.

“We're going to take care of this next six-month period, and then figure out what to do next,” says Gerstenmaier. “Because then we've got to figure out a better strategy of how we phase in, or how do we get assurance that the commercial guys are going to be there.”

Russia's three-seat Soyuz capsule remains the workhorse of human spaceflight. It was baselined as the original lifeboat for the ISS, and one or two of the vehicles are docked there at all times in case the crew needs to return to Earth in an emergency. During the shuttle era it provided vital redundancy in human transport to the space station, which it demonstrated after the Columbia accident grounded the surviving shuttles. Now NASA wants the commercial crew vehicles to play that same role.

“The commercial crew program is important to the International Space Station program,” Gerstenmaier testified. “We need redundant crew transportation and rescue capability as soon as possible.”

Since the accident the Soyuz vehicles have been upgraded with digital flight computers that replace the analog versions in use for 30 years, at a weight savings of 70 kg. But in general, Russia has followed its traditional path with the Soyuz, making only incremental changes to address issues that crop up during operations and sticking with the tried-and-true approach typified in the continued use of the same launch site inaugurated by Yuri Gagarin on the first human spaceflight in 1961. The next likely change will be cutting the trip time between the Baikonur Cosmodrome and the ISS from 34 orbits over two days to four orbits in under 6 hr., a trajectory already demonstrated with Russia's Progress cargo vehicle (AW&ST Aug. 6, p. 14).

China, too, has followed an incremental path in developing the Shenzhou spacecraft that carries its astronauts to orbit. Essentially a Chinese upgrade of the basic Soyuz configuration of orbital, landing and service modules, Shenzhou has flown nine times, four of them with crews beginning with Yang Liwei on his October 2003 Shenzhou 5 solo mission. The most recent flight—Shenzhou 9 in June, with the nation's first female space traveler among its crew of three—demonstrated that astronauts could manually dock with the Tiangong-1 mini-space station, after the unmanned Shenzhou 8 demonstrated manual docking in October 2011. Between the two missions Chinese engineers made more than 400 changes in fault modes and procedures, including 100 related to the manual controls (AW&ST June 25, p. 34).

Shenzhou 10, originally built in case there was a problem with Shenzhou 8 and 9, is tentatively set to launch next year with another three-person crew and another manual docking on the manifest. China's stepwise approach to the fundamentals of human spaceflight is leading toward the deployment of a small space station in 2020 (AW&ST June 25, p. 18).

Like NASA, the European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies will continue to rely on Russia's Soyuz vehicle for access to their facilities on the ISS until a U.S. commercial crew vehicle is available. Canada and Japan have no orbital spaceflight vehicles in development, but Europe may find its hardware helping to send humans to orbit and beyond someday.

One of ATK's selling points for the Liberty launch system is the human rating on its heritage components, including the Ariane V. Although the big European rocket has never flown humans, it was designed to fly the planned Hermes spaceplane and was considered safe to launch humans from the outset. Even though the Liberty was not selected for CCiCap funding, ATK says it probably will compete for NASA human rating with Liberty anyway.

NASA has also been in discussions with the European Space Agency (ESA) about building the service module for the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle under development for government-run exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit. Designed to ride behind the four-seat capsule that Lockheed Martin started developing for NASA under the Constellation program, the service module will carry propulsion, power, avionics and other systems the crew needs to operate in space until shortly before reentry.

ESA has been looking for ways to advance the technology that went into the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) the ISS partnership uses for station resupply under barter agreements that also include U.S.-provided transport for European astronauts. Many of the systems in the ATV could be adapted to the Orion service module, which has been deferred in development because of other demands on NASA's flat budget.

The idea faces opposition among the ESA member stages, some of which would rather see Europe develop a more distinctive spacecraft. France has pushed for a “Versatile Autonomous Concept” (VAC) that would evolve ATV technology into a multi-mission platform able to conduct robotic spacecraft servicing, orbital debris removal and ultimately conduct robotic exploration at Mars (AW&ST April 2, p. 43). However, the VAC would cost at least €700 million ($900 million), which does not appear to be available. As a result, ESA may be forced to work with NASA on the Orion service module or a portion of it (see p. 44).

India, too, is struggling with its next steps in space. While development of an indigenous upper-stage engine for its Geostationary Space Launch Vehicle has hit snags, success with its Polar Space Launch Vehicle and the Chandrayaan-1 robotic lunar orbiter had led some Indian space leaders to advocate an ambitious effort to fly humans into space.

The Indian Space Research Organization has experimented with subscale reentry vehicles as part of that work, but lack of government support recently forced ISRO to drop long-range plans to send humans to the Moon as a follow-on to the planned Chandrayaan-2 robotic lunar landing. An orbital human vehicle program remains on the table, but without final government approval (see p. 43).

Two spacecraft are taking humans to low Earth orbit. At least seven more are in development. To see what's flying, and what's in the works, check out the digital edition of AW&ST on leading tablets and smartphones, or go to AviationWeek.com/hsf