The third round of competitive grants to commercial spaceflight companies has been unveiled to advance spacecraft capable of sending astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). The NASA programme, called commercial crew integrated capability (CCiCap), will award $300-500 million to selected applicants. Exact solicitation and award dates for the programme had not been announced as of press time.
"The base period will be 21 months, we plan to award in July or August of this year (2012) and expect it to run through 2014," said Ed Mango, commercial crew programme manager.
The base programme, under which funds will be distributed via space act agreements (SAA), is aimed at helping companies develop and demonstrate a crewed orbital flight of at least three days' duration by 2015. Though full crew is unnecessary for the demonstration, the spacecraft must be capable of supporting a crew of four. Following a satisfactory demonstration, the programme will change to federal acquisition regulation-based contracts (FAR) to buy launch services from the developed system.
"We have been very consistent all along saying that eventually we will need a FAR-based contract for missions to the ISS."
The previous two rounds, called commercial crew development (CCDev), resulted in awards of more than $300 million to six companies and a number of unfunded data-sharing agreements. CCiCap differs from previous rounds in emphasising integrated spacecraft/launch vehicle pairings. While several CCDev awardees are building their own launch vehicles, including SpaceX and Blue Origin, others are relying upon the Lockheed Martin Atlas V sold by United Launch Alliance.
While the US maintains significant unmanned launch capabilities, the ability to launch astronauts into orbit retired with the Space Shuttle's final mission in July, 2011. To launch astronauts to the ISS requires a ride in a Russian Soyuz, for which Russian space agency Roscosmos charges around $60 million per seat.