Pick one (or two) — the commercial crew finalists. Image source: NASA.
Rumors are rife on the Internet that NASA will soon announce the finalists for its commercial crew program.
That would jibe with comments made by NASA administrator Charlie Bolden and other NASA executives over the last year that the final-round participants would be announced in the late summer of 2014.
A November 2013 Office of the Inspector General Report highlighted how the program has been delayed thanks to Congress repeatedly cutting the Obama administration's funding requests for commercial crew. Demonstration flights could have begun this year, and “NASA planned to enter into individual FAR-based contracts for each crewed mission with the hope of beginning flights to the ISS in 2016.”
But Congress keeps cutting the budget. To quote from the report:
The Program received only 38 percent of its originally requested funding for FYs 2011 through 2013, bringing the current aggregate budget shortfall to $1.1 billion when comparing funding requested to funding received. As a result, NASA has delayed the first crewed mission to the ISS from FY 2015 to at least FY 2017.
In space subcommittee hearings, several members object to the competition, instead telling NASA executives to essentially “pick one and move on.” Bolden has patiently explained to these members that eliminating competition also eliminates affordability and innovation, but for the most part he's been ignored.
NASA would probably like to keep all three going, but it's unlikely they'll have the funding, so observers expect NASA to down-select to one or two.
Those jaundiced by decades of OldSpace lobbying and Congressional porking think Boeing is the likely winner. Boeing is labelled a “heavy hitter” by OpenSecrets.org, having spent $15.2 million on lobbying in 2013. Compare that to the $1.1 million spent in 2013 by SpaceX and the $600,000 spent in 2013 by Sierra Nevada Corporation, the other two candidates.
But the commercial program so far hasn't shown much evidence that porkery has interfered with the selection process in previous rounds. In 2012, ATK failed to win despite the $1.3 million it spent on lobbying in 2011 and the $1.5 million in 2012. Utah Rep. Rob Bishop falsely claimed the Obama administration was in cahoots with SpaceX, ignoring the awards to Boeing and Sierra Nevada, both long-established aerospace companies.
My hope is that the winners are determined by the original intent of the commercial space program when created by the Bush administration in 2005.
In my March 2013 article “The Origins of Commercial Space” I wrote about how a commission appointed by President George W. Bush called for “the breaking down of barriers to commercial and entrepreneurial activities in space, as well as a cultural shift towards encouraging and incentivizing more private sector business in space. Such a change in both perspective and posture is essential if we are to develop a broad-based, societal change in space business.” The commission noted that “It is the stated policy of the act creating and enabling NASA that it encourage and nurture private sector space.”
So while NASA wasted billions of dollars on the doomed Constellation government-launch program, it also opened in November 2005 the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office “to spur private industry to provide cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit and the international space station in support of the Vision for Space Exploration.”
C3PO began with the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, initially recruiting SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler. After the latter failed to achieve a milestone, it was dropped for Orbital Sciences. Both the SpaceX Dragon and the Orbital Cygnus now robotically deliver cargo to the International Space Station.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin at the 2008 NASA Lunar Lander Challenge Recognition Ceremony. Image source: X Prize Foundation.
During an October 2006 address to the X Prize Lunar Lander Summit, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said:
My hope is that with the seed money we are putting into the COTS program, we can demonstrate the possibility of commercial cargo and crew transportation to the International Space Station, and that subsequently NASA will be able to meet its ISS logistics needs by purchasing these demonstrated services. If we can do this, we will be able to change the paradigm for transportation services to be more in line with the air mail service of the 1920s, meeting the logistics needs of the ISS, some 7,000 to 10,000 kilograms per year, after the Space Shuttle is retired in 2010. In the process, we may be able to spur innovation for low-cost access to space. This is a carefully-considered investment with known risks that we can all see and appreciate, but with a potentially huge upside that makes it well worth the risks.
Two years later at the 2008 event, Griffin said:
Those of us in the government side of the space business must recognize a fundamental truth. If our experiment in expanding human presence beyond Earth is to be sustainable in the long run, it must ultimately yield profitable results, or there must be profit to be made by supplying the needs of those who explore to fulfill other objectives. Think about the California gold rush, and Levi Strauss.
Space exploration today is primarily a government activity, but that will not always be so. In fact, we should work to see that it is not. We should reach out to those individuals and companies who share our interest in space exploration and are willing to take risks to spur its development.
If this final round is to honor the original intent of those who founded the commercial space program in 2005, then in my opinion the winners should be those who assume the greatest financial risk to develop the most innovative and revolutionary designs.
On its web site, Boeing touts the CST-100 as “Safe, Affordable, Soon.” Not much said about revolutionary innovations; according to a Boeing marketing sheet the CST-100 was developed “using systems and processes proven across Boeing on human transportation vehicles ranging from commercial airplanes to military aircraft and the Space Shuttle to the International Space Station.”
Animation of a SpaceX Dragon V2 flight and landing. Video source: SpaceX.
Contrast that with the SpaceX Dragon V2. It will have SuperDraco thrusters that will steer the vehicle to a soft landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Landing legs will extend through a reusable PICA-X heat shield to land on a pad. It's not proven — yet — but it is revolutionary and innovative. It's what the McDonnell Douglas DC-X Delta Clipper hoped to achieve in the 1990s, but failed.
SpaceX has also assumed the greatest financial risk. The Falcon 9 was developed solely with private money, as will be the Falcon Heavy. SpaceX is leasing Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A and spending its own money to renovate that facility for commercial crew and Falcon Heavy launches. Boeing and Sierra Nevada would launch atop the Lockheed Martin Atlas V, already operated by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. ULA has held a legal government launch monopoly since 2006.
The Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser is descended from the NASA HL-20 and earlier lifting-body concepts, but it would be the first to go beyond drop tests. Dream Chaser also has potential customers with the European and Japanese space agencies, expanding their market beyond NASA.
Boeing representatives have said that if they do not win the final award, they will re-evaluate CST-100's business case and have threatened to eliminate jobs at Kennedy Space Center — a typical OldSpace tactic. Sierra Nevada has diversified their portfolio with the potential ESA and JAXA deals. SpaceX has said they will continue without funding, but perhaps not as quickly.
Boeing and SpaceX have deals to fly customers to the Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitats scheduled for launch in 2017. If I were Bob Bigelow, I'd be looking at Boeing's threats and wondering if they're a reliable partner. A Boeing withdrawal turns over the Bigelow market to SpaceX, and possibly Sierra Nevada.
The winners will be chosen on many criteria. I hope NASA looks at which companies are the most innovative and tries to honor the program's original intent, which was to liberate space access from the cronyism of Congress and legacy aerospace companies. A return to the old ways pretty much dooms affordable and innovate private access to orbital space for the rest of this decade; handing Boeing a monopoly is simply an extension of the status quo. If Boeing gets one award, there needs to be a NewSpace competitor to keep the OldSpace giant honest.