An artist's conception shows Excalibur Almaz's orbital vehicle in flight.
At least eight companies have been invited to chat with NASA about their plans to build spaceships for sending astronauts to the International Space Station after the space shuttles are retired. Among the big questions yet to be answered: How much money will actually be set aside for supporting the development of those spaceships, and how many companies will get that money?
The list of eight was reported last week by the weekly Space News. Here's the rundown, with links to more information about each venture's proposal:
- Alliant Techsystems, or ATK, which is partnering with Astrium on a launch vehicle that's based on Ares and Ariane technology.
- Blue Origin, the relatively secretive rocket venture that's backed by Amazon.com billionaire founder Jeff Bezos.
- The Boeing Co., which is offering its CST-100 space capsule as a crew transport craft for NASA and private operators.
- Excalibur Almaz, which plans to update Soviet-era hardware to create a low-cost next-generation launch system.
- Orbital Sciences Corp., which is partnering with Virgin Galactic and other companies on its Prometheus space plane.
- Sierra Nevada Corp., which is working on a lifting-body concept based on the decades-old HL-20 design.
- SpaceX, which has already successfully tested its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule and would adapt that system for crew transport.
- United Launch Alliance, which is working to get its Atlas and Delta rockets ready to launch humans into space.
All these companies are looking for money from NASA for the second phase of the agency's Commercial Crew Development program, or CCDev 2. Four of these companies — Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and ULA — have already received shares of the $50 million awarded during CCDev's first phase. (A fifth company, Paragon Space Development, received CCDev 1 funding as well.)
The current plan calls for NASA to award another $200 million for CCDev 2. There's some uncertainty over that figure, however, because Congress is still deliberating over the budget for the current fiscal year. It's not clear how much money NASA will get overall, but it could well come in below the $18.7 billion that the agency received during the previous fiscal year.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk has estimated that it would cost $1 billion over three years for his company to develop a crew-capable version of the Dragon spacecraft — which suggests that even $200 million won't go very far, particularly if it's split several ways. Not all of the eight companies will receive NASA funding. And there are other companies in the CCDev 2 competition that don't appear on Space News' list, including United Space Alliance, which has suggested retooling two of the space shuttles; and t/Space, a venture that's proposing the development of a new crew transfer vehicle.
NASA aims to announce its lineup for CCDev 2 funding this month, which means it's getting down to crunch time for many of these concepts. Theoretically, the companies' spaceship-building plans aren't supposed to depend on NASA backing. But realistically, it will be much more difficult for a company to attract investments or private business if the space agency doesn't smile upon them.
More rumblings about the companies' prospects may filter out next week, after the discussions with NASA. The CCDev 2 discussion board at NASASpaceflight.com is a good place to look for inside information. How would you handicap this space race? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
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