By Steven Siceloff,
Kennedy Space Center, Fla.
The first U.S. companies to launch people into space from American soil may have been in the room Wednesday when NASA officials discussed an upcoming opportunity that culminates with operational missions carrying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
A pre-proposal conference by NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida occurred approximately two weeks after CCP asked for proposals from aerospace companies that would lead to crewed missions to the ISS in 2017 or earlier.
Proposals from commercial companies will result in award of one or more contracts for the development and certification of a Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap). CCtCap is the second phase of a two-phase certification plan for commercially built and operated integrated crew transportation systems. One or more contracts may be awarded following an open competition; however, all companies interested in submitting proposals must be at a level consistent with the first phase of certification efforts during the Certification Products Contract (CPC). Through its certification efforts, NASA ensures that a commercial transportation system has met NASA’s safety and performance requirements.
Kathy Lueders, acting program manager of CCP, noted NASA's hope that CCtCap will allow commercial industry to provide the agency with the most innovative solutions to a safe, cost-effective and reliable transportation capability. She also emphasized the need for the spacecraft to be able to serve as a lifeboat for the International Space Station, something that no other American spacecraft has done since the Skylab program in the early 1970s when an Apollo spacecraft remained docked to the station for less than three months. An ISS lifeboat needs to stay in space for many months at a time.
The conference took place within a month of the successful conclusion of NASA's groundbreaking Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) effort to facilitate the development of privately operated cargo spacecraft that can ferry cargo to low-Earth orbit, including the ISS.
COTS saw two American companies, Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, Calif., better known as SpaceX, and Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., design, build and launch a pair of new spacecraft on rockets that also were newly designed.
Demonstration and resupply missions began in 2012 and continued into 2013. NASA already has signed Commercial Resupply Services contracts with the companies to deliver more cargo and critical science experiments to ISS.
The space agency has also used the COTS model to facilitate U.S. companies' development of their own human-rated commercial spacecraft.
"We want to keep the underlying philosophy of a partnership," said Phil McAlister, NASA's director of Commercial Spaceflight Development.
CCtCap will include at least one flight test to verify the commercial spacecraft can dock to the station and its systems perform as expected. At the successful conclusion of NASA’s certification activities under CCtCap, commercial companies will be awarded a minimum of two and a maximum of six post-certification missions to provide NASA with commercial crew transportation services to meet its station crew rotation requirements.
The contract further emphasizes NASA's partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for commercial human spaceflight. Commercial launch and re-entry activities for post-certification missions will be licensed by the FAA under CCtCap.
Pam Underwood in the FAA's Office of Commercial Transportation said the agency worked closely with NASA and its partners in licensing all the commercial cargo missions under COTS to ensure public safety. The FAA has a similar partnership with CCP to achieve safe crew transportation missions under CCtCap. This partnership was formalized in a Memorandum of Understanding between the agencies for the achievement of mutual goals in human space transportation dated June 2012.
"This partnership seeks to avoid conflicting requirements, multiple sets of standards, and to advance both public and crew safety," Underwood said. "Collaboration and partnership between our agencies will further provide a stable framework for the U.S. space launch industry."
There has been no shortage of companies looking to work with NASA during this development and certification phase for crewed missions, including aerospace giants and several start-ups. NASA engineers continue to work closely with several companies as they refine their certification plans and test new equipment in increasingly realistic scenarios to develop safe human spaceflight transportation capabilities.
In December 2012, three industry partners, The Boeing Company of Houston, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) of Louisville, Colo., and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., were awarded CPC contracts to establish certification plans and data sets to prove plans work for their integrated crew transportation systems that align with agency safety and mission requirements. Each company's initial certification plans have been reviewed by NASA and feedback has been provided with safety recommendations that the agency has learned in its more than 50 years of spaceflight history. Each company will submit an updated plan for NASA's consideration by January 2014.
In addition to the efforts being performed under CPC, work is continuing under the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) and Commercial Crew Development Round (CCDev) 2 initiatives simultaneously.
For example, SpaceX is deep into the design and testing of a human-rated version of its Dragon spacecraft. Two launch abort system tests with a full-size Dragon are scheduled for 2014. One will occur on SpaceX’s launch pad on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The other will occur following liftoff atop a Falcon 9 rocket and during ascent.
Boeing has built mock-ups and simulators of its CST-100 spacecraft. Engineers and designers from Boeing's airliner and aircraft divisions are teaming up to provide expertise in the spacecraft's design. The company has performed wind tunnel tests of the CST-100 and engine tests for the thrusters that will make up its launch abort system.
SNC performed a free-flight test of its Dream Chaser spacecraft and has seen its innovative hybrid rocket engine pass a series of test firings. SNC also is continuing to refine the vehicle's aerodynamic characteristics through wind tunnel testing.
NASA also is working with Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin on the company's biconic spacecraft design and reusable booster under an unfunded Space Act Agreement.
While facilitating industry's development of their own commercial human spacecraft, the agency also is developing the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS), a crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket to provide an entirely new capability for human exploration. Designed to be flexible for launching spacecraft for crew and cargo missions, SLS and Orion will expand human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and enable new missions of exploration across the solar system.