Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Something Old, Something New

Click the arrow to watch the Kennedy Space Center media event.

Click the arrow to listen to the commercial crew teleconference.

NASA announced yesterday that Boeing and SpaceX will provide the commercial vehicles that will transport astronauts to the International Space Station, hopefully by 2017.

Sierra Nevada Corporation, the third commercial crew participant in the prior round, will not be part of the certification process. Congress has pressed NASA to downselect as quickly as possible, even though the lack of competition would remove the incentive to innovate and charge an affordable price.

That could be reflected in the awards given the winners. Boeing will be eligible for $4.2 billion, while SpaceX can win $2.6 billion.

The significant disparity was a major focus of questions during yesterday's two media events, as well as social media debate.

Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathey Leuders repeatedly explained that the discrepancy was due to the vendors' responses to NASA's request for proposal. Both companies must meet the same milestones and achieve the same requirements, although the tests within each milestone may differ.

The implication is, frankly, that Boeing wants to charge more for the same service that SpaceX will provide.

What Sierra Nevada might have charged was not revealed, and may never be. Ms. Leuders declined to comment on why SNC and other proposals lost, other than they selected those that “provided the best value to the government.”

Neither vendor automatically gets the amount of the award. It must be earned, and it's possible neither company will ever earn that amount.

It's an important distinction, because it maintains a degree of competition in the final round.

Assuming both vendors complete their milestones and are certified by 2017 as planned, NASA has guaranteed each company a minimum of two and a maximum of six flights to the International Space Station. To quote from the press release:

The contracts include at least one crewed flight test per company with at least one NASA astronaut aboard to verify the fully integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the space station, as well as validate all its systems perform as expected. Once each company’s test program has been completed successfully and its system achieves NASA certification, each contractor will conduct at least two, and as many as six, crewed missions to the space station. These spacecraft also will serve as a lifeboat for astronauts aboard the station.

If SpaceX bid a lower price than Boeing, then theoretically SpaceX could get six flights while Boeing gets only two. These are fixed-price contracts, meaning neither vendor is guaranteed a profit nor can they come back and plead for more money.

A NASA promotional video for the Boeing CST-100. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

A NASA promotional video for the SpaceX Dragon V2. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

An additional contract could be issued once these terminate, and through a bidding process NASA could once again select the best offer.

The flights will be purchased through Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) contracts. Each flight will be a “task order,” formally known as in indefinite delivery contract. Task orders are used when the number and scheduling of services is undetermined.

During today's presentation at the Federal Aviation Administration's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., NASA's Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development Phil McAlister referred to a “five-year ordering period,” implying that up to twelve flights could occur from certification until five years later, e.g. 2017-2022. McAlister said the ordering process would occur “incrementally,” issuing task orders as they progress.

Implying that NASA might favor one vendor over another, McAlister said the agency would “leverage whatever vehicle is best for the program.” Note the use of the singular.

When asked if it was possible for SNC or other vendors to obtain crew contracts at a later date, McAlister said the FAR rules allow NASA to “bring in another provider if circumstances warrant.” He noted that “It's in NASA's interest to have a competitive environment.”

Click the arrow to watch the video of the FAA COMSTAC event with Phil McAlister.

Although NASA hopes that certification and operational flights begin in 2017, Administrator Charlie Bolden stressed that “Congress needs to support the President's request” for commercial crew funding, which hasn't happened since the Obama administration proposed funding the program in February 2010. A November 2013 audit by the NASA Office of the Inspector General found that the lack of Congressional support has already delayed the program by at least two years:

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. For FY 2013, Commercial Crew Program managers had already expected less than the requested $830 million and based their planning on a funding level of $525 million. The combination of a future flat-funding profile and lower-than-expected levels of funding over the past 3 years may delay the first crewed launch beyond 2017 and closer to 2020, the current expected end of the operational life of the ISS.

Bolden also said that "we need more destinations than the International Space Station." He didn't specifically name Bigelow Aerospace, but he did say "single modules" and "other laboratories" which would seem to describe the Bigelow habitats. A demonstration version called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module is scheduled to fly to the ISS in 2015 on the SpaceX cargo Dragon flight CRS-8.

Both Boeing and SpaceX have deals with Bigelow to deliver customers to the full-scale habitats which are planned to launch starting in 2017, roughly coinciding with the vendors' NASA certification date.

A Boeing Co. promotional video showing a computer animation of a CST-100 docking at the ISS. Video source: theworacle YouTube channel.

Bolden encouraged the media to ask the vendors about their commercial flights to other destinations. The certification process applies only to NASA flights; commercial flights to Bigelow are the regulatory purview of the Federal Aviation Administration.

As for Sierra Nevada, I wouldn't dismiss Dream Chaser just yet.

SNC has signed developmental agreements with the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. SNC has proposed various versions of Dream Chaser, including a strictly autonomous version that could serve an orbital microgravity laboratory and land by remote control.

NASA executives already have talked about a new round of ISS commercial cargo contracts, a potential market Boeing representatives recently speculated could be a use for CST-100 if Boeing didn't get a crew contract. Theoretically it's possible that SNC could seek an autonomous cargo delivery or orbital laboratory contract with NASA in the future. Dream Chaser will continue to receive NASA award payments for milestones achieved under earlier commercial crew round contracts once achieved, and could continue to collaborate with NASA using unfunded Space Act Agreements. Today's presentation by Phil McAlister left open the possibility that SNC could get a contract is SpaceX or Boeing falter.

Some members of Congress have criticized the SAAs; the NASA Inspector General issued a report in June 2014 which found problems with NASA's management of funded SAAs but did not question the unfunded agreements.

Unless Congress finally provides full funding for commercial crew as requested by the Obama administration since 2010, the future of this program will remain uncertain. If the November election gives control of both houses of Congress to the Republican party, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) could become chair of the appropriations subcommittee that controls NASA funding. He's generally been unfriendly to anything he interprets as a threat to the Space Launch System, which Shelby views as a major source of pork for his state. The House in recent years has consistently provided less funding for commercial crew than the Senate, so a Republican takeover might continue to underfund commercial crew.

I wrote in May 2014 that the commercial cargo and crew programs were proposed by the Bush administration specifically to encourage innovation and price reduction by encouraging risk. The idea has proven itself with commercial cargo.

Now we get to see if it works with commercial crew.

The significant price disparity between Boeing and SpaceX suggests the final battle between OldSpace and NewSpace may be which vendor gets six ISS flights. If SpaceX gets six while Boeing gets only two, it will be because SpaceX validated the original idea behind “Building a Robust Space Industry,” as it was called in 2004 by the Aldridge Commission.

Their report 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.”

That vision for societal change was echoed time and again in yesterday's and today's media events. By the end of the decade, we'll know if it worked.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver on Bloomberg TV comments on the commercial crew awards. You may be subjected to an ad first.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk interviewed by CNN. You may be subjected to an ad first.

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