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NASA's Commercial Crew Program

NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program is investing financial and technical resources to stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and demonstrate safe, reliable, and cost-effective space transportation capabilities. The Program manages Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) partnership agreements with U.S. industry totaling $500M for commercial cargo transportation demonstrations and is investing $50M towards commercial crew development initiatives.


Interview Excerpts RT:


HQ Contacts:

Michael Braukus      202-358-1979

J.D. Harrington         202-358-5241

For more information:

Phillip Mcalister;

Acting Director, Commercial Space Flight Division, Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

(0:45) My role is to lead the planning for the commercial crew activities. It was a news program that was announced in the President's budget last year, last February, so we have been planning for that program. We're prohibited from actually starting on it because of a prohibition on new starts in the FY2010 appropriations, but we can plan for the activities. So we're planning on how we're going to structure the program, the acquisition strategy. We're also planning on how we're going to gain some sufficient insight into these commercial systems so that we are sure that they are safe to fly our personnel. So there's a lot of planning and pre-activity that has to go in, and is involved with setting up the program, and that's what I'm leading for the Explorations Systems Mission Directorate.
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(1:12) Well, we're still defining that. Historically, NASA has been sort of in charge of all of our previous human space flight endeavors, which means, we make most of the decisions, we sign off on all the design activities, we define our specifications to a very low level of detail, and we ensure, through a very rigorous progress, that our contractors have met all of those requirements and satisfied all of those specifications. With this commercial crew program, we're actually going to be shifting some of the responsibility over to the private sector. So they're going to be more responsible for satisfying NASA's overall goals for the program, and we are going to be overseeing that effort – we're going to be helping them financially and technically with their activities, but it's going to be slightly different that it has been in the past where NASA has just owned the design, owned the vehicles like the space shuttle. In this scenario, the private sector will own these vehicles. So it's a very different role for NASA to be in; it's a paradigm shift for us, and so that takes a lot of activity to make that we going to plan that and be prepared for that correctly.
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(1:04) We felt like it was time at this point to transfer this specific mission over to the private sector. We're not talking about all of exploration, that is NASA's role and going beyond low Earth orbit and exploring Mars and the asteroids with humans, that's still going to be NASA's primary role in exploration. But the mission to low earth orbit, just transporting crew to the International Space Station and back, is a mission that we've been sort of doing for over four decades now. It's very similar to the Gemini program that we had in the 60s, where we just take a few astronauts, maybe as many as seven, up to low earth orbit and bring them back again. So it's a relatively well understood mission, and we believe that the time is right, the private sector has matured now, the space industrial base is more strong today than it has ever been, financially and technically, so we feel like we can shift this particular mission over to the private sector, save us some money, and allow NASA to focus its resources on beyond LEO, beyond low Earth orbit exploration.
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(2:04) There are a lot of factors I believe that went into the decision to go forward with the commercial crew program. The first is, we have a very constrained fiscal environment. All Federal budgets are very tight and that includes NASA as well, and we believe by doing this mission commercially that we can save a lot of money, than if we did it through a very large-scale government effort, so that's one area. We do have to be very cost conscious and we believe we can save a lot of money by allowing the private sector to have a bigger role.

Number two is, the technology is relatively well understood. Like I said, it's just a mission that we've been sort of doing for about 40 years. Human spaceflight is very difficult – it's always going to be hard, and you've always got to be very careful, but it's something, that again, we've been doing – it's more of a routine mission than say, going out to an asteroid or Mars.

Third the industrial base is stronger than it's ever been before. The U.S. commercial aerospace industrial base, is stronger technically, it's stronger financially, so that they can take on more of this responsibility.

Fourth, there is the prospect for other customers and that is key to a commercial program. If it was just NASA, and we were the only customers for this service, then it might not make as much sense to do this commercially, but we have seen since 2001, private space tourists or space flight participants, flying to low Earth orbit commercially. Dennis Tito was the first in 2001 and we've seen about nine since then, so it averages about one a year. And there's been many market studies that say that that could be a very, very robust market, so there a prospect of other customers that could reduce NASA's costs, and allow the private sector to amortize their costs over a larger base, so that's key.

And then finally, the decision on the part of the administration, and recently endorsed by Congress, to extend the life of the Space Station to 2020 or beyond. Now for the first time in history we have a truly long term, sustainable market for low Earth orbit, human space transportation services.
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(0:30) As I said, human space flight is always going to be something that is very difficult. So the safety is something that we're going to take very seriously. We would like to see a lot of demonstrations, and ensure that the systems have redundant capability so the crew can survive failures and anomalies. So I would say that's the biggest challenge – to ensure that we can do this safely and cost effectively – that will be the biggest challenge going forward.
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(2:23) Yeah, that's a great question. I think one of the primary positive indicators we have for commercial space flight is the commercial cargo program that NASA started in 2006. We awarded contracts to, at that time originally, Space-X and Rocketplane Kisler, to do cargo delivery, this is not involving people but just cargo, to and from the International Space Station. So it's like logistics, water, clothing, and other consumables that we need to maintain the International Space Station. So we embarked on that program in 2006; we didn't really know exactly how we were going to do it, it was a commercial activity that we were doing, and we're looking at that program as a sort of a precursor for how we're going to do commercial crew. So in the four years that we have been developing this program for a very modest amount of money, we initially invested $500 million dollars with two companies. Rocketplane Kisler missed some of their early milestones and they're agreement was terminated and then we exercised another agreement with Orbital Sciences, so currently we have two partners on the cargo program, which is called COTS – Commercial Orbital Transportation Services. Started in 2006 and then just last year in December, Space-X had their first demonstration flight of a new launch vehicle and a spacecraft that orbited the Earth twice, reentered successfully, splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and was recovered -- the first time a private company has ever done anything like that, so it was a huge success. They have two more demonstration missions, and Orbital Sciences also has a demonstration mission, so we are poised to gain two new launch vehicles, two new spacecraft, and two end-to-end systems capable of delivering cargo to the International Space Station, all for a very modest investment of what was originally $500 million dollars – we may augment that this year with another $300 million dollars, but either way, historically, that's a very short period of time and a very modest amount of money for what NASA stands to gain. So that's been a real confidence builder in going about this program commercially. And we would like to leverage that lessons learned; leverage the way we've done that, and apply those lessons to the commercial crew program, which is a lot harder but something that we feel we can do.
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(1:14) I would say there are no challenges for NASA. The company's themselves have to close their business case. They're going to have to figure out what cost structure that they provide these services for, what their profit margins can potentially be, how much they want, so I really would say it's up to each individual company to figure out their overall business plan, and whether they can close their business case with this. We hope that we can and by NASA providing that base market, that long-term sustainable market, we feel like they can close their business case. But at the end of the day, NASA will be certifying these systems as safe.

There have been some feeling in some quarters that maybe these private companies will cut corners to maximize their profit margins and all I can say to that is, NASA is going to ensure the safety of these systems, the safety requirements are the exact same as the safety requirements that NASA would provide or apply to our own programs. So we don't have two different safety goals – one for commercial and one for NASA programs – they are the same. They have to achieve the same safety thresholds and capabilities that a NASA program would. So I don't really see that as a unique challenge for this program.
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(0:54) Ten years down the road I would like to see a very vibrant commercial industry with a variety of suppliers and variety of customers for low Earth orbit human space transportation services. I think that that is something that unites us all in this country; that's something that we all would like to see. We would have assured access to the International Space Station. We would have a capability for people of all walks of life – astronauts, researchers, potentially tourists, to go to low Earth orbit which from all accounts, from people that have been there before, has been just an amazing experience. And I believe that once we push the boundaries of private industry and economic interests and commerce to low Earth orbit, there will be no turning back. We will have planted the first truly sustainable flagpole in our exploration of space by pushing out to low Earth orbit with private industry.
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