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How tycoons will fuel spaceflight

NASA announces funding to four experimental spacecraft. WESH's Dan Billow reports.

With the shuttle program winding down, the future of American spaceflight may well depend on how starry-eyed tycoons spend their money — and some of NASA’s money as well.

Three of the four companies that are in line to receive $269.3 million from NASA for building future spaceships are privately held, and what's more, they're led by well-off individuals who have at least a hint of intrigue about them. The fourth company, Boeing, is partnering with Bigelow Aerospace, which was founded by hotel-chain billionaire Robert Bigelow and has its own orbital aspirations.

NASA has laid out a plan for paying out the money over the next year or so, with the aim of promoting the rise of a new set of spaceship operators in the post-shuttle era.

In a commentary, George Washington University communication researcher Linda Billings picks up on the fact that hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are going to ventures that are headed up by folks who already have hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Why do these 'commercial' space companies need government handouts?" she asks. "The awardees are not hard-up start-ups (and these government handouts are not their first)."


It's true that all four companies have received money from the federal government previously, but none of those companies would characterize the payments as "handouts" or "subsidies."

They'd see them instead as payments for services rendered, goods delivered, or milestones achieved along the path that NASA wants them to take. And the $50 million that's been paid out so far under NASA's Commercial Crew Development program, or CCDev, is dwarfed by the $9 billion paid to commercial providers such as Lockheed Martin for the development of NASA's now-canceled Ares 1 rocket and now-downsized Orion crew capsule.

Although the financial details are hard to come by, it's virtually certain that the four companies have already spent far more than they've received for their spaceship projects. It's also virtually certain that not all four projects will make it into orbit. Because NASA is spreading out its bets, failure is definitely an option.

Here's a recap on the four spaceship development projects that NASA will be supporting for the next year under the second phase of the CCDev program. I'll be focusing on these efforts on Saturday during a Second Life chat about the post-shuttle spaceflight era, presented by the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics at 1 p.m. ET (10 a.m. SLT/PT):

Blue Origin

Blue Origin's orbital space vehicle is designed to take on trips to the International Space Station.

Blue Origin: The venture getting the least amount of money ($22 million) is arguably the most mysterious of the bunch. Amazon.com's billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, set up Blue Origin in 2000 to follow through on his childhood dream of going into outer space. He has the country's only privately owned spaceport, nestled amid his 165,000-acre ranch in West Texas — and until CCDev came along, most people assumed he was targeting solely suborbital space tourism.

CCDev made clear that Bezos had higher ambitions: Blue Origin's agreement with NASA, made public in redacted form this week, shows that the company aims to build an orbital launch system capable of getting seven passengers to the International Space Station (or other destinations in low Earth orbit). Its space vehicle would initially be launched on an expendable rocket such as United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5, and eventually Blue Origin plans to field its own reusable rocket.

The suborbital effort is now seen as an interim step along the way to orbit. "The suborbital vehicle will be fully reusable and capable of flying three or more astronauts to an altitude of over 328,000 feet (above 100 kilometers) for science research and adventure," Blue Origin said. "The suborbital booster is currently undergoing integrated testing. ... The suborbital capsule will baseline key technologies for the orbital space vehicle, and is currently undergoing final assembly."

With rare exceptions, the only information publicly available about Blue's plans comes from government documents that must be made publicly available, such as the one released this week. Thus, it's hard to tell how much money Bezos has put into his rocket venture so far. But when you consider the construction costs for Blue Origin's production facility in Washington state, plus its facilities in Texas, plus all the testing it's done to date, it's unquestionably more than the $3.7 million the venture received under CCDev1 plus the $22 million it's due to get under CCDev2.

Blue Origin's partners include NASA's Ames Research Center and Stennis Space Center, United Launch Alliance and Lockheed Martin, Aerojet and the Air Force Holloman High Speed Test Track in New Mexico. The company's agreement with NASA says that Bezos "recognizes that successful development of an innovative space launch capability is a long-term endeavor and is committed to steady funding for development efforts to achieve a commercial orbital vehicle."

The company said NASA's support would "accelerate" the development of a reusable crew transportation system. "We are very pleased to continue working with NASA on development of our Crew Transportation System, and appreciate the confidence NASA places in Blue Origin," the company's program manager, Rob Meyerson, said in an emailed statement.

Sierra Nevada Corp.

An artist's conception shows Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser near a space station docking port.

Sierra Nevada Corp.: Sierra Nevada received $20 million during CCDev1 and is getting $80 million in CCDev2 to continue development of its Dream Chaser space plane, which is based on the HL-20 lifting-body design that NASA pioneered back in the 1980s. The concept was revived by high-tech entrepreneur Jim Benson at SpaceDev and inherited by Sierra Nevada when it acquired SpaceDev in 2008. (Benson had left SpaceDev two years earlier and came up with a different spaceship concept, but he passed away in 2008 before he could get very far with the idea.)

Sierra Nevada's top corporate officers are in the public eye far less than Jeff Bezos. After all, Bezos is still the head of a publicly traded company, but CEO Fatih Ozmen and his wife, company president and chief financial officer Eren Ozmen don't have much reason to go public. Three years ago, a story about Sierra Nevada in the Las Vegas Sun called Fatih Ozmen a "mystery man."

The Ozmens started out as employees at Sierra Nevada and acquired the Nevada-based company in 1994. Since then, Sierra Nevada has grown into a big-time defense contractor with 29 locations in 15 states. Inc. magazine listed its 2009 revenue at just under a billion dollars.

Sierra Nevada's website lists numerous awards, including recognition as "the top woman-owned company demonstrating excellence in applying innovative IT solutions to the federal government." But the company has also experienced the occasional hiccup, such as recent questions over the development of an imaging pod for the Air Force, called Gorgon Stare.

The company's agreement with NASA lists 11 partners, including Boeing, United Launch Alliance, United Space Alliance, Aerojet, Draper Lab, NASA's Langley Research Center, AdamWorks, SAS, the University of Colorado, the U.S. component of Canada's MDA robotics company and Virgin Galactic (which is working with Sierra Nevada on "global marketing, sales and commercial operation" of the orbital Dream Chaser).

SpaceX

An artist's conception shows SpaceX's Draco thruster engines firing to separate the Dragon spacecraft from the Falcon 9 second stage. Side-mounted thrusters could be used as a launch abort system and landing system.

SpaceX: This California-based company, founded by high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2002, has notched a surprising number of space successes lately, including last December's launch-to-splashdown test of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo capsule. NASA is supporting the development of the Falcon-Dragon system with $278 million under a separate program for cargo craft development, known as Commercial Orbital Transport Services or COTS. If SpaceX hits its marks, it will be in line for $1.6 billion worth of NASA contracts to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

Musk has said it would take $1 billion and three years of work to adapt the Falcon-Dragon system to carry crew, primarily because of the expense of developing an emergency launch abort system. This week, he said the $75 million in CCDev2 money would put SpaceX on track to meet that schedule.

"The award will accelerate our efforts to develop the next generation of rockets and spacecraft for human transportation," Musk said in a statement. "With NASA's support, SpaceX will be ready to fly its first manned mission in 2014."

Musk has made no secret of his long-term goal: to open the way for colonizing Mars and turn humanity into a multiplanet species. This week's statement referred slyly to those ambitions by noting that SpaceX's thruster system would "provide the capability for Dragon to land almost anywhere on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy, overcoming the limitation of a winged architecture that works only in Earth's atmosphere."

A couple of years ago, Musk said that he invested $100 million of his fortune in SpaceX — but there have been more recent indications that the spigot has been turned down on his personal cash flow. SpaceX recently reported raising $50 million in additional funds, and Musk said an initial public offering may take place next year. Last year, there were a flurry of reports about Musk's financial straits, which led him to discuss the situation candidly in the Huffington Post.

SpaceX's agreement with NASA says the $75 million would accelerate crew-transport development by 50 percent compared to an internally funded baseline. So what does that say about SpaceX's investment? That figure is blacked out in the agreement posted online, but if time is money, that might imply SpaceX is bringing $75 million of its own to the project. The section listing SpaceX's partners and institutional investors is also blacked out, but the company notes that it works in "close collaboration with four NASA centers and eight leading aerospace companies."

Boeing

Boeing's CST-100 craft approaches the International Space Station in an artist's concept.

The Boeing Co.: This aerospace giant is something of an outlier. It's publicly traded, and has been involved in the U.S. space effort for decades. Among other things, Boeing served as the prime contractor for construction of the International Space Station. Billings' knock against Boeing was that with $3.3 billion in profit for 2010, the company didn't need a government "subsidy" for its spaceship-building operation.

However, Boeing's John Elbon repeatedly said in the run-up to the CCDev2 announcement that NASA had to serve as the anchor customer for the company's proposed CST-100 crew capsule. Without NASA support, the financial underpinnings of the project just didn't stand up. The $92.3 million in CCDev2 money, added to the $18 million from CCDev1, will keep Boeing on track to have the capsule ready for flight by 2015.

"By the end of CCDev2, our design will be firmed up and we'll have it synced up with NASA requirements so we understand our vehicle will meet those requirements," Boeing's John Elbon told reporters.

Boeing's go-ahead is also good news for Robert Bigelow, whose aerospace company has already put up two inflatable test modules into orbit on Russian spacecraft. Bigelow Aerospace is hoping that the CST-100 — perhaps launched on an Atlas 5, Delta 4 or Falcon 9 — can bring paying passengers to its future private-sector space stations as well as to the government-supported International Space Station.

In addition to Bigelow, Boeing's agreement with NASA lists Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Airborne Systems, ILC Dover, Spincraft, XCOR Aerospace, United Space Alliance and ARES Corp. as teammates and investors. Boeing also notes its agreements with Bigelow, Space Adventures and an additional blacked-out entity "to increase market growth."

Orbital Sciences Corp.

Orbital Sciences' Prometheus space plane, shown in this artist's conception, was one of the proposals that NASA passed up. Orbital is now reportedly planning to mothball the concept.

What separated the winners and losers: NASA has now released the full list of companies proposing CCDev2 spaceship projects, plus short rundowns on why particular proposals were chosen or eliminated. It's fascinating reading for space geeks.

The also-rans included alphaSpaces, Andrews Space, ATK Aerospace Systems, Excalibur Almaz, ILC Dover, Innovative Space Propulsion Systems, KT Engineering, Oceaneering International, Orbital Outfitters, Orbital Sciences Corp., Orbital Space Transport, Paragon Space Development Corp., PlanetSpace, Spacedesign Corp., TGV Rockets, Transformational Space Corp. (a.k.a. t/Space), United Launch Alliance and United Space Alliance.

Philip McAlister, acting director of NASA Headquarters' Commercial Spaceflight Development program, said Boeing and SpaceX were clear standouts from the rest of the pack. "They were the only ones to receive 'very high' confidence ratings, which I consider significant," he wrote.

ATK, Excalibur Almaz and United Launch Alliance were among the finalists, but McAlister said Excalibur Almaz was eliminated due to low ratings, especially on business considerations. He opted not to go with ATK and United Launch Alliance in part because of their lack of linkage to a crew-carrying vehicle. Those two companies were proposing only to build launch vehicles, and McAlister put somewhat less weight on that side of the equation.

"Within the U.S. industrial base, there is considerable launch vehicle development expertise, as many companies have successfully developed new launch vehicles over the last few decades," he explained. "In contrast, no U.S. company has successfully developed a crew-carrying spacecraft in over 30 years."

In other words, not since the space shuttle ... unless you count the private-sector SpaceShipOne rocket plane, which made three suborbital space trips in 2004

Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin's Space Operations Simulation Center in Colorado can simulate on-orbit docking maneuvers using mockups of the Orion spce capsule, left, and the International Space Station.

So what's next? The CCDev2 covers the development timeline through May 2012, but NASA is looking for another $850 million to cover the third phase of the program, CCDev3. Being a CCDev2 winner doesn't guarantee that you'll get CCDev3 funding, and it's possible that a company not receiving money in one phase of the program could be funded for a future phase. For example, SpaceX didn't receive any funding in CCDev1 but was awarded $75 million in CCDev2.

The agreements with NASA spell out milestones that must be met in order to receive incremental payments. It's not guaranteed that all the companies will meet all the milestones. For example, Rocketplane Kistler was awarded up to $207 million from COTS, NASA's cargo spacecraft development program, but the company couldn't reach its investment target and was cut off after receiving $32.1 million for hitting earlier milestones.

If the CCDev process is successful, NASA should be able to choose from new U.S.-built spaceships for launching astronauts to the International Space Station in the 2014-2015 time frame. In the meantime, the space agency will have to rely on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft for crew transport. NASA expects to begin sending cargo up to the International Space Station on remote-controlled craft provided by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. as early as next year.

Separately, NASA is also funding Lockheed Martin's work of the Orion crew capsule, which is currently envisioned as a NASA-operated emergency crew escape vehicle. Such capsules would be launched to the space station without a crew, thus minimizing the flight risk.

The Orion may well turn into the multipurpose crew vehicle that Congress wants NASA to develop for trips beyond Earth orbit. Congress has set aside $1.2 billion in the current fiscal year for the Orion-based crew vehicle, plus $1.8 billion for a heavy-lift rocket capable of putting 130 tons of payload into orbit. Lawmakers want to see that mission accomplished by 2016, but NASA isn't sure the job can be done

Even if the beyond-Earth space transport system is ready by 2016, NASA is expected to use commercial transports to get astronauts to and from the space station. Using a heavy-lifter to send astronauts to low Earth orbit would be like using a semi to get from one end of town to the other. It's better to call a taxi ... which is exactly what NASA plans to do once its commercial "space taxis" are ready to fly. 

More on the space race:


If you're a Second Life user, please join me at the StellaNova Amphitheater on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET (10 a.m. PT/SLT) for "From the Shuttle to Mars," a talk about the post-shuttle era presented by the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics. If you miss the talk, you'll still be able to listen to the full hourlong podcast via MICA's audio archives. (You'll also find links to the archived podcasts from my three previous MICA talks.)

Join the Cosmic Log community by clicking the "like" button on our Facebook page or by following msnbc.com science editor Alan Boyle as b0yle on Twitter. To learn more about my book on Pluto and the search for planets, check out the website for "The Case for Pluto."