Americans could be flying into orbit on U.S.-built spaceships again as early as 2015 — but the first fliers won't be NASA astronauts or millionaire space tourists. Instead, they'll be commercial test pilots, employed by the Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp., SpaceX or maybe even a dark-horse company like Blue Origin, the venture funded by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos.
Those four companies provided updates on their efforts to build new spaceships capable of carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station during a Wednesday news briefing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. One of the companies, Blue Origin, is wrapping up its work for NASA and is no longer receiving money through the Commercial Crew Program, or CCP. But SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada are splitting more than $1 billion that's to be paid out through 2014.
NASA's manager for the Commercial Crew Program, Ed Mango, said the agency and its commercial partners are already talking about "Phase 2" for the program. The certification requirements and timetable for Phase 2 are expected to be set this year, with contracts awarded by May 2014, Mango said. "We believe that there’ll be more than one, probably two, three, maybe others, that will be ready to compete for Phase 2," he said.
That phase would move the program forward to 2017, by which time NASA expects to be flying its astronauts on U.S. launch vehicles for the first time since the shuttle fleet was retired in 2011. In the meantime, NASA will be paying the Russians more than $60 million per seat for round trips to the space station.
"Our target was to repatriate that industry back to the United States, and that's what we're doing," said Mark Sirangelo, chairman of SNC Space Systems at Sierra Nevada.
Here's how the companies' plans are shaping up:
SpaceX: Former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, SpaceX's commercial crew project manager, said his company is working toward a launch pad abort test by the end of the year at Kennedy Space Center. An in-flight test that would demonstrate the ability to abort a launch safely during ascent, "at the worst possible moment," is planned for April 2014, he said. If SpaceX sticks to its schedule, it would use its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule for a manned test flight in mid-2015, and would send test pilots to the space station by the end of 2015. "We're not selling tickets. Don't call our toll-free number," Reisman joked.
Sierra Nevada Corp.: Sirangelo said his company was planning to drop its Dream Chaser mini-shuttle from a carrier airplane for its first autonomous, free-flying glide test in the first quarter of this year. That would be followed by a series of autonomous and crewed aerodynamic test flights, similar to the tests conducted by NASA using the prototype shuttle Enterprise in the late 1970s. Then Sierra Nevada's team would launch the Dream Chaser into space — first on suborbital test flights, and eventually into orbit. Last year, the company said manned orbital flights could begin in 2016.
The Boeing Co.: John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for Boeing's commercial crew program, said his company proposed conducting a three-day orbital spaceflight with a Boeing crew in 2016. The head of Boeing's flight test program is former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, who commanded Atlantis' crew during the final flight of the shuttle program. "He is defining crew requirements," Mulholland said. Before the test pilots fly, Boeing will conduct an unmanned orbital trial of its CST-100 space capsule, plus an altitude abort test.
NASA / Blue Origin
An artist's conception shows Blue Origin's orbital space vehicle.
Blue Origin: The company that Bezos founded in 2000 is not receiving NASA funding during the current phase of the agency's spaceship development program — but Blue Origin's president and program manager, Rob Meyerson, said he's still doing business with the space agency. "We're working with NASA to extend our Space Act Agreement in an unfunded manner," Meyerson said. The company is continuing to test its BE-3 rocket engine and work on its next prototype propulsion vehicle. Eventually, Blue Origin aims to launch crews on suborbital as well as orbital spaceflights.
The plans for future flights are dependent on continued NASA support — and Phil McAlister, NASA's commercial spaceflight development director, acknowledged that "the budget is going to be an extremely challenging topic."
If NASA's funding is reduced, Reisman said his company would continue to move toward manned flights, but at a slower pace. "Human spaceflight is our reason for being. We are in this for the long haul," Reisman said. "There will be impacts to cost and schedule, should funding dry up. But we're going to get there eventually."
Sources tell NBC News that NASA will provide further support for the development of the Boeing Co.'s CST-100 capsule (left), Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser space plane (middle) and SpaceX's Dragon capsule (right).
Update for 12:55 p.m. ET Aug. 3: Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada are due to receive up to $1.1 billion to continue work on spaceships that could be carrying astronauts to orbit in the 2015-2017 time frame. Check out today's updated story.
My earlier report from Aug. 2: Teams headed by the Boeing Co., SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. will be receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from NASA over the next 21 months for further development of spaceships capable of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station, knowledgeable sources told NBC News today.
NASA is to make the official announcement of the winning commercial teams on Friday morning — but NBC News' Cape Canaveral correspondent, Jay Barbree, received word from two sources who were informed of the decision in advance, on condition of anonymity. The sources did not discuss how much money any of the companies would be receiving.
The coming phase of the spaceship development effort — known as Commercial Crew Integrated Capability, or CCiCap — is aimed at producing the design for an entire launch system, including the "space taxi" capsule and launch vehicle as well as ground and recovery operations. The three companies tapped for future funding already have received hundreds of millions of dollars from NASA during earlier development phases. Boeing has gotten $131 million for work on its proposed CST-100 capsule, Sierra Nevada has been allotted more than $125 million for its Dream Chaser space plane, and SpaceX has won $75 million to upgrade its Dragon space capsule to carry crew.
SpaceX, known more formally as Space Exploration Technologies, has also received almost $400 million from a separate NASA program to support the development of the Dragon and Falcon 9 rocket for cargo deliveries to the space station. The successful flight of a Dragon to the station and back in May opened up the way for SpaceX to start regular cargo deliveries under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA.
Representatives of SpaceX and Sierra Nevada had no comment on the news. NASA said it would not announce the agreements until Friday morning, as scheduled. Efforts to contact Boeing were unsuccessful so far tonight. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, quoted industry sources as saying that Boeing and SpaceX were expected to share the bulk of NASA's CCiCap money, and that Sierra Nevada seemed likely to emerge with a smaller award.
NASA invited companies to submit proposals in the range of $300 million to $500 million for development of their spaceship designs through May 2014, with potential optional milestones as well. Under an agreement with congressional leaders, the space agency will provide the full negotiated amount for two companies, plus half of the requested funds for a third company. It's an arrangement I like to call "Two and a Half Spacemen," playing off the title of the popular CBS sitcom.
What about the also-rans? Other companies sought unsuccessfully to win CCiCap funding — most prominently, a consortium that included ATK, Lockheed Martin and Astrium. The consortium's Liberty launch system would adapt the ATK-manufactured solid rocket booster that was used for the space shuttle and the now-canceled Ares 1 rocket. The second stage would be based on Astrium's Ariane rocket. The composite capsule would be provided by Lockheed Martin, which is the prime contractor for NASA's more capable Orion deep-space capsule.
Other contenders from previous rounds of development included Blue Origin, which was founded by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos; and Excalibur Almaz, which is adapting Russian technology for its launch system.
NASA officials have said they'd be willing to continue advising the also-rans on an unfunded basis. On the other side of the table, all of the companies involved in the CCiCap competition have said they intended to continue spaceship development efforts even if they didn't win NASA's financial support, but at a reduced pace.
What lies ahead? Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada have said their spaceships could be ready for NASA's use in the 2015-2016 time frame if they received adequate funding from the space agency. Last month, Ed Mango, NASA's manager for the Commercial Crew Program, told me that the middle of the decade seemed doable, but suggested that 2015 might be too soon.
"By the end of the base period, you need to have an integrated design that you have talked with the government about," Mango said. Actually launching a demonstration spaceflight with a crew might serve as an optional milestone, he added.
Boeing and Sierra Nevada are partnering with other companies to develop their launch system — and the most notable partner in both cases is United Launch Alliance, which could launch Boeing's CST-100 as well as Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser on its Atlas 5 rockets. SpaceX, in contrast, is pursuing its effort on a solo basis.
With last year's retirement of the space shuttle fleet, NASA must depend on the Russians to transport U.S. astronauts to and from the space station, at a cost of around $60 million a seat. All of the companies involved in the Commercial Crew Program say they can do the job for less money than the Russians. In comparison, the cost of flying the space shuttle was estimated at $1 billion or more per mission.
Like the shuttle, the new space taxis are being designed to carry up to seven astronauts.
Update for 11:15 p.m. ET: I want to emphasize that Jay's sources did not tell him which companies are getting more or less money than other companies. They only named the three companies. The Wall Street Journal's report suggests that Boeing and SpaceX will be getting more money than Sierra Nevada, but we don't have any information about that angle of the story. NASA promises that all will be revealed in the morning, and of course we'll pass that along.
NASA is closing out one chapter in the multibillion-dollar effort to create new fleets of spaceships, and getting ready to open the next one. Sometime in the next month or two, the space agency will pick up to three teams of companies to receive hundreds of millions of dollars worth of funding for their spaceship development efforts. That's a lot of money — but it's important to keep all those expenditures in perspective.
Cargo transports NASA's push to commercialize transportation services to low Earth orbit began in 2006, a couple of years after the White House decided that the space shuttle fleet had to be retired, when SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler were awarded almost half a billion dollars to support the development of robotic cargo spacecraft capable of resupplying the space station in the post-shuttle era. "If it doesn't work, I've frankly made the wrong bet," said Mike Griffin, who was NASA's administrator at the time.
In Rocketplane Kistler's case, the bet didn't pay off. NASA paid the company $32.1 million, but Rocketplane failed to win enough private backing to keep going. The company lost its NASA funding and ended up declaring bankruptcy. Orbital Sciences Corp. was selected as a replacement.
With May's successful demonstration flight of the Dragon cargo capsule, SpaceX has virtually completed all its objectives for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS. It should soon get the last of the $396 million in COTS money that NASA has set aside for the company. Orbital Sciences, meanwhile, is gearing up for key flight tests of its Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule, and at last report has received $266.5 million of its $288 million in COTS money.
Even as the development program nears its end, SpaceX and Orbital are getting ready to begin routine cargo flights to the space station under a follow-on program known as Commercial Resupply Services, or CRS. SpaceX is due to get $1.6 billion for 12 flights scheduled through 2015, while Orbital gets $1.9 billion for eight flights. Citing NASA figures, NBC News' Jay Barbree says SpaceX and Orbital have each received $337.6 million in preparation for the CRS flights.
May 31: SpaceX's Dragon cargo craft returns to Earth from the International Space Station.
Space taxis So far, we've been talking about unmanned flights to the space station, but NASA also needs U.S. spaceships capable of carrying astronauts to and from the station. Because these "space taxis" will be carrying people rather than mere stuff, the safety standards will have to be higher than they are for cargo craft. In 2010, NASA started setting aside funds to support the development of such spacecraft by private-sector partners. In the first phase of the program, NASA awarded $50 million to five companies for work on future spaceships or safety systems: $3.7 million to Blue Origin, $18 million to the Boeing Co., $1.4 million to Paragon Space Development Corp., $20 million to Sierra Nevada Corp., and $6.7 million to United Launch Alliance.
Last year, four companies won funding for the development of potential crew vehicles: SpaceX is getting $75 million for work on a crew-capable version of the Dragon. Boeing is getting $112.9 million for its CST-100 capsule. Sierra Nevada is getting $105.6 million for its Dream Chaser space plane, and Blue Origin is getting $22 million for its Orbital Space Vehicle. Three other companies are getting technical advice from NASA, but no money. Those three are ATK, Excalibur Almaz and United Launch Alliance.
Over the past few weeks, NASA has been making a string of announcements to the effect that the companies are meeting their milestones for the current phase of development. Just this week, for instance, the space agency said that it's wrapped up reviews with ATK and United Launch Alliance.
The next phase of the program will extend until May 2014. During this phase — known as Commercial Crew Integrated Capability, or CCiCap — NASA is expected to provide support for up to three teams that are offering complete systems for human spaceflight, including the launch vehicle, the space taxi and the infrastructure for ground and recovery operations. "By the end of the base period, you need to have an integrated design that you have talked with the government about," Ed Mango, program manager for NASA's Commercial Crew Program, told me.
Mango said NASA will announce who gets the CCiCap money sometime in the next 30 to 60 days. Exactly how much money is at stake? Mango won't say until the announcement is made, in part because negotiations are in progress. Each of the teams in the competition was asked to submit a confidential proposal for $300 million to $500 million in support, but NASA has been working with the teams to pare down the price tags if possible.
"It's similar to if you want modifications done to your house," Mango explained. "You can either buy the estimate as is, or you can negotiate on that estimate."
An artist's conception shows Boeing's CST-100 crew capsule approaching the International Space Station. The CST-100 is one of several "space taxis" being developed for potential use by NASA.
Last month, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., worked out a deal under which two teams would get a full award, while a third backup team would get a partial award. The Obama administration requested $830 million for CCiCap in fiscal 2013, but it looks as if Congress is instead focusing on a funding level around $525 million.
The 2013 funding will be supplemented by extra money that NASA has been holding onto in the current fiscal year, as well as funding yet to be proposed for fiscal 2014, Mango said.
"The plan in fiscal year 2012, when we put our budget together, was always to use a large amount of the funds from fiscal year 2012 to be used for the next activity," he said. "There are hundreds of millions of dollars for FY12 that we will be putting into CCiCap once CCiCap is awarded."
There may be bonuses as well. "We have asked companies to give us optional milestones that we may or may not approve on the government side, that will bring each of the partners all the way through a crew demonstration mission," Mango said.
He doesn't expect any U.S. commercial spaceship to be ready to fly astronauts by mid-2014. "The state of the industry today is not ready to go through that in that amount of time," he said. But if a team is nearing the point at which it can send people safely into space — say, in 2015 or 2016 — there'd be an incentive for them to go for the optional milestone as part of the CCiCap phase of the program.
SpaceX and Boeing, as well as the team behind the Liberty launch system (which includes ATK, Astrium and Lockheed Martin), have said they could have their spacecraft ready for manned flights by late 2015, assuming that adequate funding is available. Sierra Nevada Corp. has said the Dream Chaser could send people into orbit in 2016, and Blue Origin is aiming for a similar time frame.
NASA wants to have U.S. commercial vehicles flying to the space station by 2017. In the meantime, the space agency will be paying the Russians as much as $63 million a seat for orbital rides. The teams vying for CCiCap money say they can beat that price. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, for example, has been quoted as saying the target launch price for crewed Dragon flights is $140 million, which works out to $20 million per seat for seven astronauts.
Mango emphasized that flying astronauts into space isn't just a question of dollars and cents: "Our No. 1 mission is to create a safe capability," he said.
He also noted that the Commercial Crew Program had two "separate but equal" goals. "We have a public need to create a U.S. capability to get folks to low Earth orbit ... and to the International Space Station," he said. The first goal could conceivably encompass scientific research flights or voyages to private-sector space stations, while the second goal is focused specifically on NASA's obligation to support space station operations through at least 2020.
"It's similar to when you look for a car," Mango said. "You buy a car, and then you decide where you want to go with it."
Exploration vehicles When you count up all the money that NASA has set aside for commercial spaceships, the total comes to several billion dollars over the course of several years. That may sound like a lot of money, but it's far less than what's being spent on NASA's more ambitious effort to build space vehicles for exploration beyond Earth orbit.
As of 2010, roughly $10 billion was spent on Constellation, NASA's now-canceled project to send astronauts back to the moon. Another $2.5 billion was allocated to close out the Constellation contracts. The expenditures included $455 million for a suborbital Ares 1-X test flight that wasn't followed up on, and $500 million for the construction of an Ares 1 Mobile Launcher that was never used and now sits idle at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
That launch platform could still get a workout from the Liberty launch system, which incorporates elements of the Ares 1 rocket. It could also serve as the liftoff point for NASA's Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket that's being developed to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid in the mid-2020s, and perhaps to Mars and its moons sometime in the 2030s.
Sept. 14, 2011: NASA unveils the design of its next-generation rocket.
Last year, Congress and the White House agreed on a plan that calls for spending $18 billion on the SLS rocket and the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle through 2017. That's when the first unmanned test flight is scheduled. About $10 billion would go to designing and building the rocket; $6 billion would go to the Orion development effort, led by Lockheed Martin; and the other $2 billion would go to launch pad construction at Kennedy Space Center.
After 2017, NASA projects that spending on SLS and Orion would amount to $3 billion a year, with the first crewed launch scheduled to take place in 2021. The further out you go, the squishier the numbers get.
In coming years, new rockets such as SpaceX's Falcon Heavy will probably be in the mix as well, and may even be flying commercial payloads to the moon and Mars. It'll be interesting to see how the next chapters of the spaceship saga play out. Do you have any guesses about future plot twists? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.