Four years into its initiative to develop a U.S. commercial crew transportation system, NASA is nearing an inflexion point in the program as it fights potentially debilitating budget cuts while investing more to see the competitors through to the next stage.

The agency is poised to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for the second phase of development and certification under the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) program, as a step toward awarding Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts in mid-2014.

Despite budget concerns, NASA officials appear increasingly optimistic that Congress is becoming more supportive of the Commercial Crew initiative, particularly as the competitors—Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Sierra Nevada Corp.—advance into hardware demonstrations. “We're seeing higher momentum,” says NASA program manager Ed Mango.

At the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space 2013 conference in San Diego this month, Mango said the agency is on track to release the RFP for Phase 2 certification shortly. The buildup to certification and the award of CCtCap contracts come amid mounting test activity and encouraging early results from commercial resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS), both helping build the case for more funding, he says.

“The mood as I see it on both the executive and congressional side for Commercial Crew is getting stronger,” Mango says. Referencing the congressional plus-up in funding for fiscal 2014 to $525 million from $428 million, he says, “both chambers understood . . . the importance of getting a U.S. capability for the ISS. . . . If certain things happen under a continuing resolution, we will be somewhere between $488 million and $525 million. We are good to get through [fiscal 2014] and still complete commitments we have under [the CCiCap initiative], and that will play into how we implement CCtCap.”

Mango notes that NASA has contracted with all three teams for certification products. “While the companies are doing development, we want to start talking with them about our requirements and how they are going to meet them.” The effort has been split into two, with the first round “going very well,” he adds. In the first round, the teams gave NASA proposals on how they would or would not meet the requirements. “Now we're in the middle of feedback to them,” Mango says.

The second round is a further iteration of the same process. “At the end of January, we will give them feedback again. Then they have all the data. So, if they're ready to bid for the next phase, it gives them a chance to refine proposals before the best and final bids,” he says. Mango expects the RFP for CCtCap to be released in late October. Final bids will be due by year-end, with contract award planned for the end of July 2014.

“I'd like to have more than one,” he says. “Competition helps price, but we also understand it helps in other ways, such as safety.” Competing providers also gives the government “much more capability—we have a redundant system on this side [of the Atlantic].” The award “pretty much guarantees two missions to the winning contractor,” Mango says. The contract will allow up to six missions, based on performance, through 2020. Beyond this, and assuming the life of the ISS is extended, NASA will transition to a services contract. This will be enacted once commercial crew services have “stabilized,” he says, adding: “We don't want to go with a long-term services contract until we understand the risk posture.”

Of the contenders, Sierra Nevada is the nearest to flying hardware. It is conducting flight-readiness reviews for the first drop test of the Dream Chaser lifting body at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards AFB, Calif., amid preparations for its first Commercial Crew critical design review (CDR).

At press time, the flight was expected either Sept. 21 or Sept. 28, as the approach-and-landing tests are only permitted on a Saturday at Edwards and, to keep to Sierra's schedule, should begin by the end of this month. Until now, Dream Chaser development has been conducted under a $212.5 million CCiCap contract received in August 2012, considerably less than those awarded to Boeing and SpaceX. But NASA's decision in August to add a $5 million CDR milestone has boosted the competitive position of the Dream Chaser, says Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada Space Systems' head and corporate vice president.

“We will enter CDR this year, and before that, we were doing it on our own. To us, it represents that NASA believes we are a system that's matured enough to begin the CDR process. They see that because of the energy we're putting into it,” says Sirangelo. NASA also awarded Sierra Nevada an additional $10 million for incremental reaction-control system testing, to be accomplished in July 2014. “That's about getting to maturity quicker,” he adds.

“One of the biggest risks is the 'green' thrusters,” Mango says. “We'd like to keep on with testing of those because, if that technology takes off, it could revolutionize the way we do satellite servicing on orbit. We want Sierra Nevada to work toward that and are funding the thruster design so they can do testing in a near-vacuum environment . . . . At some point, we need to lock down the design of the orbital vehicle, so we agreed to discuss how the 'test-a-little-build-a-little' approach will feed into the final design.”

Sirangelo says the Dream Chaser engineering test article at Edwards is “ready for its first autonomous flight.” The initial two drop tests, from a hovering Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane, could be enough to satisfy Sierra Nevada's requirements. “It will go at least two flights, but it could go to 10 if we need to,” he explains.

Assembly of the orbital-test Dream Chaser, to be used for powered flights into space, is underway at Lockheed Martin's facility in NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana. “We wanted to have two under simultaneous construction, and with it being at Michoud, this brings in another NASA center . . . . We're targeting delivery next year,” Sirangelo says.

Planned testing from next year, assuming a CCtCap award in July, will see the Dream Chaser “go higher, faster, hypersonic, suborbital, without people and with people,” says Sirangelo. Testing will be divided into four major steps: approach and landing, high atmospheric, suborbital and orbital. For initial testing, Sierra Nevada has yet to decide whether to tow the Dream Chaser or drop it from a launcher aircraft.

Boeing and SpaceX, both proposing capsule-based concepts, are approaching equally intense periods of test and development milestones, made busier by new targets added by NASA.

“It's the grind up to critical design review,” says John Mulholland, Boeing Space Exploration vice president and commercial programs manager. The company is on track to complete five milestones by year-end, having completed seven since the start of the year. Five more remain for 2014, including a newly added requirement to conduct a Phase 2 spacecraft safety review in July.

“After you get to CDR, you want to understand how that affects all the safety analysis,” says Mango. “So we decided to fund their next level of safety review. Each team has a unique approach to how they do this development, and we see where there are higher risks and rewards, and use that for optional milestones.”

In May, Boeing completed a further round of water-tank drop tests of the CST-100 capsule at a facility in Las Vegas. The tests were required because of last year's redesign of the airbag system to accommodate extra loads uncovered during analysis of conditions encountered in the event of a water landing. Boeing performed 15 drops of a CST-100 model in five days. “This was to make sure we really understood the loads when we put that center airbag in,” says Mulholland.

This month, Boeing also completed engine development tests on the orbital maneuvering and attitude control (OMAC) system, as well as a mission-control-center interface demonstration test as a precursor to pilot-in-the-loop tests in February. A new engineering simulator installed at Houston will be used to perform the initial piloting tests “in the fall.” Overall, the CST-100 team is “about a month ahead of plan,” Mulholland notes. “Almost weekly, there is a component CDR.”

SpaceX, which is poised to launch the first upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 that is part of its Commercial Crew architecture, was to deliver a detailed inflight-abort test plan to NASA for review last week. In October, the company will conduct a safety review covering a hazard analysis, probabilistic safety assessment and failure mode and effects analysis. A review of the upgraded Falcon 9 flight, which will take place from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., follows in November.

Later in the year, SpaceX will conduct further testing of the parachute system for Dragon Rider, the manned version of the capsule already used to carry cargo to the ISS. “SpaceX has a parachute system and pad-abort system they're going to test, and they are going to do the chutes in a way that's never been done before,” says Mango. “We said that's a pretty big risk, so we came to an agreement to do this extra milestone,” he adds. The $20 million milestone is planned to be accomplished by December.

An integrated CDR is set for March 2014, with the final design slated to be presented to NASA before the start of manufacturing the orbital test vehicle. The parachute tests at the end of this year, which include a helicopter drop test, “will help us with the more difficult launch-abort/pad-abort test in April,” Mango says.