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Can commercial firms win with NASA?

NASA’s $50 million 10-month commercial crew transport programme starting in November could be irrelevant by February if US president Barack Obama decides a review of US human spaceflight plans means private enterpise has no future role.

Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) ordered the “Review of US human space flight plans” in May as NASA’s Moon return Constellation programme is behind schedule after years of inadequate funding and the Space Shuttle fleet is being retired next year. This means from 2010 NASA will rely on Russian transportation to reach the International Space Station (ISS).

The space agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme has been used to develop cargo launch systems for ISS to replace the Shuttle's upmass capability. COTS also had a crew option but it has not been funded and in April NASA told the US Congress it was considering an alternate astronaut transportation effort.

 CCDev Timeline

10 August 2009

13 August 2009

Proposals due
22 September 2009

November 2009

Likely Milestones
January 2010

End date
30 September 2010

That alternate effort is now known as the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) programme (see left box). It could award one or multiple funded space act agreements with the $50 million the agency is providing from the $1 billion it received through Obama’s fiscal stimulus package (see box below).

However if Obama’s administration decides against commmercial options CCDev will be a technology programme with no clear market for the participants to sell their crew transport systems into.

In the meantime CCDev is to assist “viable commercial entities” to develop “capabilities and mature” the development of space transport systems. NASA is not specifying launch systems but companies will have to use a new docking interface the agency is developing.

In proposals companies have to describe what elements of their transport systems are operational, commercially available or under development and what the TRL is of all those elements.

And they must include the technical and programmatic risks, a technology maturation plan, performance milestones and detail safety and mission assurance. NASA expects quarterly project status briefings and will make milestone payments according to an agreed schedule.

Companies can also organise related work with NASA centres but that will have to be separate to CCDev while still being included in any proposal.

Around 50 companies have expressed an interest and three of those that want to be programme primes have told Flight International they will submit proposals by the 22 September deadline. They are Bigelow Aerospace, Interorbital Systems and PlanetSpace, which led a consortium of aerospace primes for an unsuccessful COTS bid.

A major obstacle for many of the 50 could be NASA's requirement that companies demonstrate they can provide the transport service once it is developed.

But before the companies can demonstrate anything, the OSTP's review will tell the Obama administration how viable a commercial route could be. In the review committee's public meetings in Washington DC last month the seven options it was considering for its report were laid out.

Of the seven options, three were constrained by President Obama's fiscal year 2010 and beyond budget request. One of these three and all four options not budget constrained included commercial crew.

The budget-constrained option that included commercial crew is called "ISS focused". It assumes the Space Shuttle retires in 2011, that the ISS will operate to 2020 instead of 2015 and the Constellation programme will continue with its Ares V cargo launch vehicle, while its Ares I crew launch vehicle competes for low Earth transport against commercial crew services.

OSTP director John Holdren was briefed by the review's committee chairman Norman Augustine on 14 August and was expecting to receive the full report by 30 August. The OSTP says: "[Our] intention is to get something decided in time to inform the 2011 budget process."

The 2011 budget - for the fiscal year running from 1 October 2010 until 30 September 2011 - is to be published next February, so the Obama administration could decide the future of commercial crew services by the end of this year.

The US government's economic stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), provides $1 billion for NASA: $400 million for science, $150 million for aeronautics, $50 million for "cross agency support" and $400 million for exploration, which includes $250 million for Constellation and $50 million for the Commercial Crew Development programme (CCDev). Like other recipients of money from this ARRA, CCDev must make quarterly reports to, giving details of invoices for funds provided by the Act, the number and types of jobs being created and information on first-tier contractors that are receiving over $25,000 of the Act's money.

Read more about CCDev at Rob Coppinger's Hyperbola blog

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