U.S. spacecraft engineers with federal funding will pursue at least five different ways to replace the space shuttle in the next few years, from capsules that harken back to the 1960s to a spaceplane and a vertical-takeoff-and-landing craft that flies to orbit on a reusable booster.
Breakup of the year-long political logjam over funding for NASA this month cleared the way for the agency to announce the next phase of its Commercial Crew Development effort (CCDev-2) and gave Lockheed Martin a clear path to shift its old Orion crew exploration vehicle prime contract over to the new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle effort ordained in the three-year NASA authorization bill President Barack Obama signed last year.
The five vehicles reviewed in the article are:
- An unnamed vehicle from Blue Origin
- The Boeing CST-100 capsule
- The Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser
- The SpaceX Dragon
- The Lockheed Martin Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (formerly Orion)
The hope is that at least one of these vehicles will be authorized to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station by mid-decade.
Phil McAlister, acting director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA headquarters and the selecting authority for CCDev-2, says the goal of the CCDev effort is to seed a commercial industry that can fly crews to the ISS by “approximately the mid part of this decade.” The second round is designed to mature designs that have a chance of growing into a full-scale system, which will be addressed in a third round of awards to be covered under an $850 million request for fiscal 2012.
For now, he says, the idea is to use the federal funds—plus the 10-20% the companies are required to post toward the development—to support “significant progress on maturing the design and development of elements of the system” or systems that ultimately will fly, with a conscious effort to back different approaches in a competitive approach.
“I would say at this stage of the game, competition is a very important part of our strategy,” says McAlister. “It incentivizes performance. It incentivizes cost effectiveness. We also believe that having skin in the game is also important.”