NASA’s CCiCap: Can Space Taxis Help the Pentagon?
With the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, American manned missions to the International Space Station have mostly involved Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, which costs about $63 million per seat. The lone exception has involved the commercial space innovator SpaceX, whose unmanned Dragon capsule docked at the ISS in May 2012. NASA continues to pursue its own Space Launch System heavy rocket and Orion capsule for manned spaceflight, but in the mean time, its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) program aims to spur development of lower-cost American options that could supplant or supplement Soyuz.
These “space taxis” will rely on heavy-lift rockets to make it into space. Their purpose isn’t military, but their configurations are good news for the USA’s space industrial base. SpaceX has a slot, of course, and the other 2 winning entries will use Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V EELV. Overall, 7 firms entered, and the 3 winners are:
Boeing in Houston, TX. $460 million for their CST-1000 capsule. It will launch using Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V rocket, rather than Boeing’s own Delta IV. Their capsule has 19 milestones to meet en route to its complete critical design review, the most of any winning design. Even so, The company is aiming for its 1st manned test flight by 2016.
Sierra Nevada Corporation in Louisville, CO. $212.5 million for their Dream Chaser space plane, an evolution of a NASA’s former HL-20 test vehicle that’s boosted into orbit on an Atlas V. The on-board propulsion system also has a heritage: it’s derived from SNC’s hybrid rocket motor technology, which flies on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne & SpaceShipTwo. Dream Chaser has already been through a full system Preliminary Design Review and 1st captive carry flight, and is aiming for its 1st manned test flight by 2016.
SpaceX in Hawthorne, CA. $440 million for a manned version of the Dragon capsule that recently docked at the International Space Station. They’ll continue to use their own Falcon 9 booster, and are aiming for a 2015 test flight. They’re also promising powered crew escape ability from launch pad to orbit, and a landing system that would let the capsule touch down on land.
NASA’s 3 CCiCap winners will also be investing company funds in their projects, which will push the total investment well north of $1 billion.
These wins won’t benefit the Pentagon directly, but the fact that 2 of the winners will use the same Atlas V EELV that launches some of the USA’s military satellites will be welcome news, amidst official reports that are expressing deep concern about the American space rocket industrial base. Thanks to a new Open Launch Framework, NASA launches involving SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will also make a contribution, by moving them closer to certification for higher-risk payloads.
Beyond the winning firms, 2 other firms have investment decisions of their own to make.
ATK’s Liberty system was the only other qualifying bid, but their partnership with EADS-Astrium didn’t make the final 3 for NASA funding. The partners could decide to continue with their capsule, which would launch aboard a fusion of Space shuttle boster rockets (1st stage) and Astrium’s Arianne 5 (2nd stage), with Safran’s Vulcan 2 engine as the capsule’s final propulsion. NASA has engaged with ATK in unfunded projects before, but the firms would need to either put up private funds, or find other public funding sources, such as European governments or the ESA.
The other firm with a decision to make is Blue Origin, backed by Amazon.com’s founder Jeff Bezos. Their craft’s chosen booster rocket is the Atlas V, and lower-cost manned access to space is their core mission, but their key question revolves around timing and ambition. Absent any injection of extra government funds, the firm could decide that it’s best to keep to their own schedule, rather than taking on the extra risk of trying to meet all of NASA’s priorities by 2016.
- DID – EELV Contracts: After the Merger
- Space.com – Special Report: The Private Space Taxi Race.
- NASA (July 20/12) – Atlas V Design Reviewed for Crewed Launches. Atlas V has launched numerous satellites and robotic missions into space for NASA, including the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover and the Juno probe to Jupiter. Human spaceflight is a step beyond that.