McAlister Discusses Commercial Crew Certification

by Yves-A. Grondin

In a recent presentation to the human exploration and operations committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), Phil McAlister, Director of the Commercial Spaceflight Development discussed the next steps that will be necessary for commercial crew providers to be certified to begin transportation of commercial crew to the International Space Station in 2017.

Optional Milestones under CCiCap and Phase Two of Certification:

NASA is currently funding three commercial crew providers under its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) program which runs thru May 2014. Optional milestones under CCiCap beyond May 2014 could be exercised by NASA.

As with the two previous phases (CCDev1 & CCDev2), NASA is granting money under CCiCap using Space Act Agreements (SAAs), instead of Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR).

In parallel, NASA has also started initial certification activities using FAR-based procurement contracts. The first phase of certification is known as the Certification Products Contract (CPC) and its deliverables include early life-cycle certification products (alternate standards, hazards analysis, and verification, validation, and certification plans).

NASA Funding of three Commercial Crew CompaniesCPC money was awarded last December to SpaceX, SNC and Boeing for amounts that did not exceed $10 million per company.

Under NASA’s planned strategy, the next phase of certification (phase two) should start in 2014 and should include development, test, evaluation, and certification activities. It could also include, as options, a number of crewed missions to the ISS following certification.

McAlister indicated that although FAR will be used for phase two of certification, NASA has yet to decide which part of the FAR would be used. He explained that while they are planning to shift away from SAAs for the second phase of certification, NASA will not change the basic philosophy of the program.

“The specific mechanism (space act agreement versus contract) has gotten a lot of attention but what’s really important to us is the philosophy under which we are exercising this program. We want the philosophy to remain the same. We still want industry to own (their crew transportation system). We still want some form of fixed price arrangement.

“We would like to do a public-private partnership meaning the companies (will) own the design and they (will) make more of the decisions. For customers, it should be (both) NASA and non-NASA customers.

“We are going to provide that investment (by a company) be a milestone payment based on cost. Industries defines how (they intend to do things) and we approve (it). We believe (that) we are going to maintain our program philosophy and approach to be more of a commercial oriented development.”

NASA Commercial Crew ProgramPhase two of certification is currently planned to start in the spring of 2014 (after the CCiCap base period ends) but the exact date has not yet been finalized.

McAlister explained that NASA is not certain that it will be able to award it in the spring of next year. If NASA is unable to award it at that time, NASA may decide to exercise some of the early optional milestones from CCiCap.

“If it’s in the government’s interest, we might exercise the early milestones. We do not intend to exercise the crewed flights milestones which are the last milestones. As you get later and later in the timeline, there is going to be more time for us to push those efforts into the certification phase. But we have not made any decision yet. We are (still) keeping the options open.”

SpaceX's DragonMcAlister’s statement confirms what Ed Mango, program manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, had previously told last year.

Mango had stated that the optional milestones in the CCiCap agreement had two purposes. “One, to get the entire end-to-end cost and schedule profile for the company to certify their hardware, their way for a crewed demonstration.

“Second, we may need to activate some options if the budget and schedule drives us in the late 2014 timeframe. We are not committing to any of the optional milestones, and there will be a rigorous process to activate those milestones.”

Although the optional milestones funding for each company is proprietary, the hearing charter from a House Hearing on commercial crew on September 14th 2012 revealed that the optional milestones under CCiCap for all three commercial crew providers “have aggregate total cost estimates in the range of $4.5 Billion”.

NASA or Company Astronauts?:

A crew transportation system can either be offered as a taxi or a rental system. Under the taxi system, each company would use its own pilot to ferry the crew. Under a rental arrangement, NASA would rent the entire capsule and would thus provide its own pilot.

McAlister explained that it was up to each company to decide which model they preferred. “NASA has not dictated whether the commercial providers should use a taxi or a rental car system. We have left that up to the provider (to decide which) concept of operation is best for them.

Crew Ingress on Dream Chaser“Because of our requirement that they have to provide a lifeboat function, it kind of complicates the taxi model to some extent but it doesn’t preclude it. It’s up to the providers to figure out whether they want their pilot or a NASA pilot. As long as they meet our requirements, we shouldn’t care (which option they choose). We are probably going to ask for a four crew person rotation if we have the money for it.”

McAlister added that there will be test flights during the second phase of certification. It will likely include an uncrewed and a crewed flight, but they are leaving up to the commercial companies to define how many test flights they need.

The issue of whether NASA or company astronauts can be used also arises for test flights under phase two of certification. This issue was previously discussed by Ed Mango on January 9, 2013.

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“Under phase two (of certification), it will probably be combined crews between what NASA needs as well as what the companies want to do. In the end, this is a joint effort between our astronaut core and the crew members that the individual companies (are) hiring.

“It’s that joint test plan that will get us to an end state. It isn’t just one or the other. If anyone has developed aircrafts in the past, you know that it is military pilots as well as pilots from the companies that do the flight testing. We expect that same kind of approach as we move through this overall process (of certification).”

Competition Is Important:

McAlister also emphasized the importance of maintaining competition in the next phase of certification. “If the budget would enable it, we would like to have more than one” commercial crew provider (during phase two of certification),” he noted.

Boeing CST-100“The posture for the government is to have competition because the big item is going to be in this ISS service line (i.e. the crew transportation contract is part of the budget for the ISS). (It was the) same way with cargo (where) we have seen significant benefits from competition.

“A lot of people think that competition only means you are getting a good price. It actually means that you are getting a safer vehicle as well. These guys are competing on safety because they know that’s (one of the) evaluation criteria by NASA. The government loses a lot of leverage when you only have one (provider).

“If we want any little change, if there is only one (provider), there is really no reason for that company to invest additionally. My big concern is that we will prematurely go down to one.

Phil McAlister, director of NASA's commercial spaceflight program“Both schedule and competition are very important to NASA. We would like to maintain those. If it gets to the point where we can’t, it will depend on the proposals that we will receive.”

McAlister explained that if they are in a situation where one proposal is evaluated very highly but the others are not, this could have an impact on how may providers they will continue to fund in the next phase. On the other hand, he explained that if you have two proposals that are very close, this could dictate a different outcome.

“The lifetime of the ISS might (also) be factor in the decision. Once we get those phase two proposals and they get evaluated and we get a little bit better understanding of where our budget is going to be, we will be able to make a better informed decision.”

Cost of Commercial Crew Development:

McAlister also discussed the recently completed Booz Allen evaluation of NASA’s cost estimates for commercial crew.

“We have had some internal cost estimate (for commercial crew) that we have used using a variety of different data sources. Some of our stakeholders felt that it would be important for us to get an independent cost estimate. (Booz Allen) did not do an independent estimate; they did an assessment on our estimate.”

SLS and OrionMcAlister noted they purposely used some of the same people from Booz Allen that did the analysis for the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) Orion.

He indicated that the report indicated that the “government cost estimates are high quality and follow standard cost estimating best practices but should be considered optimistic (i.e., likely to experience cost growth).” He said that he was pleased with the report.

“We do have some reserves (Unallocated Future Expenses – UFE) to cover these potential cost growth. In general, we embraced all of the findings (of Booz Allen). We had some slight differences on some of their recommendations regarding some of (the) areas of cost growth and the magnitude of the cost growth. But in general at (the) top level, we thought that (their) findings and recommendations were positive and kind of validated our approach and certainly our cost estimates.

“Where we had differences, I kind of consider them not to be big ticket items.”

McAlister said that in their estimates they calculated the total funding which would be required for each company in order to complete their program. He added that he couldn’t share these numbers because they were proprietary.

Cost of Commercial Crew Operations:

McAlister also discussed the cost of commercial crew once operational, noting that “the assumption is that (commercial crew) will be cost effective with respect to the Russians. However, McAlister admitted that he was being purposely vague on whether this meant lower than Soyuz or not.

“There is still a big pretty range on what the (costs) are going to come in at,” he added. “We will have a better idea (of the cost) in the phase two (certification) contracts.”

NASA Commercial CrewAnother point that was addressed by McAlister is whether NASA would provide any Government Furnished Equipment (GFE) to the commercial crew companies. He explained that NASA’s philosophy was that they should not generally provide any equipment to the companies.

“We did not want to want to be in the critical path (by) providing any GFE. (However,) we always said that there were two possible exceptions: docking and the communication system because they are so integrated with the ISS. It got a little bit complicated with cargo (for systems that are very integrated with the ISS).”

McAlister indicated that rescue services could potentially be another exception, noting “for global rescue services, it might make more sense for the government to do that using Department of Defense assets as opposed to have each company negotiate individually.

“However, we haven’t made any final decisions on that, because there will hopefully be flights without NASA crew and (the companies) have to figure out how to do that without NASA’s involvement. Whatever, they come up with has to work in both situations.”

The Current Slip to 2017 for Commercial Crew, via FPIP (L2)McAlister also discussed the impact that a slip to the 2017 schedule could have on each company’s business case.

“With a slip, you lose a bit of certainty on the business case for the providers if the end date for ISS is 2020. It gives them a couple of (fewer) flights that they can rely on. The plan was always for them to get non-government customers.

“Each provider is looking at that market a little bit differently. Some of them are bearish on that market; some are little bit more bullish. If you are more bullish, you might be able to say that’s not a problem, I can still close my business case (without these additional flights).

“If you are more risked adverse and you are not certain about that non-government market, it might be more difficult to close your business case. That also factors into how much they are willing to invest. It’s all kind of inter-related.”

At the same meeting William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate discussed another issue which could also have an impact the business case of certain of the commercial crew providers.

He mentioned that NASA has not yet decided whether it will extend the Crew Resupply Service (CRS) contract to Orbital and SpaceX after 2016, or if it will allow new entrants such as SNC or Boeing to compete for new cargo contracts after the current CRS expires in 2016.

NASA anticipates releasing a draft Request for Proposals (RFP) for phase two of certification in July, with the final RFP to follow in October. Awards are planned for the spring of 2014.

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