Sierra Nevada Corp.
An artist's conception shows Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser approaching the International Space Station. The Dream Chaser is one of the projects under consideration for NASA support.
Last updated 11 a.m. ET April 7:
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says that commercial spaceships are an essential part of the space agency’s future, but that the next step in space commercialization depends on Congress.
Bolden touched upon the financial realities facing his agency today during an appearance at the International Space Station and Mars Conference in Washington. The two-day conference is aimed at looking at the long-term prospects for America's space effort, including missions to the Red Planet, but Bolden also touched upon shorter-term issues. For example, what will the space agency do about human spaceflight after this year's retirement of the space shuttle fleet?
For the really short term, NASA will have to rely on the Russians for transporting astronauts back and forth, but Bolden is hoping that commercial U.S. spaceship companies will step in to fill the gap. Not just hoping. He's counting on it.
"NASA cannot do both provisioning to low Earth orbit and exploration," Bolden said. The idea is that commercial companies will take care of the resupply of the space station, while NASA turns to the longer, more difficult job of developing the spaceflight systems for trips beyond Earth orbit. The way Bolden sees it, his agency can't afford to create a fleet of space taxis at the same time it's developing the more capable craft required for the next space frontier.
"There is no magic money," he said.
That's why NASA wants to rent rather than build those space station transports. Two companies, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, are already receiving millions of dollars to build and test spaceships for ferrying cargo into orbit. Now NASA is on the verge of awarding as much as $280 million more for spacecraft capable of launching astronauts, in the second phase of a program known as Commercial Crew Development, or CCDev2.
Last month, industry analysts at FBR Capital listed their favorites for CCDev2 money: Orbital Sciences, Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp., with AlliantTechsystems (ATK), Blue Origin, Excalibur Almaz and United Launch Alliance also on the short list.
Some observers suggested that the awards would be announced as early as Wednesday, but Bolden kept mum. He suggested that the payout depended on whether Congress approved a spending plan that provided $312 million for the program, which would cover the awards as well as administrative costs.
"If it's less than $312 million, then we've got to go back and look at where we are with CCDev2," Bolden told reporters.
So the CCDev2 contractors may have to wait a bit longer for the final word, particularly if the fiscal stalemate in Congress results in a government shutdown. Bolden issued a preliminary advisory this week, telling agency employees to stand by for further word on which folks would be furloughed.
Although there's been no official word, a prolonged shutdown could complicate preparations for the shuttle Endeavour's upcoming trip to the space station. Space station operations, however, would be little affected, because keeping the multibillion-dollar orbital facility and its residents safe is seen as an essential function.
Update for 11:50 p.m. ET: Space News' Brian Berger reported in a Twitter update that CCDev2 contractors have been "told to be on standby Thurs. afternoon for word from NASA. But don't hold your breath."
Meanwhile, the shutdown showdown continues, but Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, told me tonight that a shutdown wouldn't have any immediate impact on the preparations for Endeavour's flight. "Think about it," he said. Gerstenmaier pointed out that the launch was postponed from April 19 to April 29, due to a Russian scheduling conflict. That means there are roughly 10 days of wiggle room in the pre-launch routine. Of course, it all depends on how long the shutdown lasts ... if it happens at all.
Update for 11 a.m. ET April 7: The CCDev2 announcement has been delayed indefinitely, apparently because of the continuing back-and-forth over the federal budget, according to John Elbon, vice president and program manager for commercial crew programs at the Boeing Co.
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