Just weeks ago, it was widely believed both SpaceX’s Dragon V2 and SNC’s Dream Chaser spacecraft were likely to progress into the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. On Tuesday, NASA announced Boeing’s CST-100 was the winner of billions of dollars alongside the SpaceX spacecraft.
The three main Commercial Crew contenders – SNC’s Dream Chaser, Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon – have all been progressing through the milestones allocated to them via NASA Commercial Crew Program contracts.
A down-select was always on the cards, with NASA tasked with selecting two contenders to press on toward test flights to the International Space Station (ISS), ahead of one – or both – vehicles gaining the honor of lofting full NASA crews to the orbital outpost, replacing the Russian Soyuz, currently the sole provider of crewed launches.
That first NASA mission will be known as USCV-1 (US Crew Vehicle -1), a flight that has been manifested – per recent NASA schedules – for a historic docking with the ISS on December 7, 2017.
The three companies are finishing up the phase 2 elements of the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) Space Act Agreement (SAA) milestones, on a path that positions them to potentially conducting test flights in 2016 or 2017.
SpaceX – with its impressive Dragon V2 spacecraft – recently completed its integrated crew vehicle CDR (Critical Design Review), while its operations CDR is also in work.
SNC recently finished wind tunnel testing on the Dream Chaser system and completed main propulsion system and reaction control system tests.
The Dream Chaser ETA (Engineering Test Article) is also being prepared to head back out to California for a second series of landing tests at the end of this year.
Boeing’s CST-100 is waiting for her new home to be readied in Florida, as workers finish converting Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-3) into the new Kennedy Space Center (KSC) operations base for the capsule.
Boeing also recently completed its Critical Design Review (CDR) and the phase 2 Safety Review Board.
The CST-100 spacecraft will undergo a pad-abort test in 2016, an uncrewed flight in early 2017, leading up to the first crewed flight to the ISS in mid-2017
The transition from CCiCAP to CCtCAP was always unlikely to allow all three companies to gain continued NASA funding.
Nervousness surrounding the impending decision was understandable, with billions of NASA dollars on the table for the winning parties.
While the selection process is highly secretive, speculation from within the competing companies almost universally portrayed Dream Chaser and Dragon V2 as the likely winners, prior to the expected period of silence of late, as the decision entered a political phase ahead of NASA’s announcement on Tuesday.
However, by Monday, a source apparently associated with the selection process opted to leak the news that Boeing was one of the winners to the Wall Street Journal, much to the bemusement of the workers within the competing companies.
Meanwhile, just a few hours prior to the NASA announcement – and with the news spread over several news outlets – SNC called an emotional “All-Hands” meeting to confirm the rumors in the media were true, that they had lost out on the CCtCAP award.
SNC are understood to be looking at potential options for Dream Chaser, but they will at least continue with their current CCiCAP milestones requirements.
As expected, NASA added that SNC could continue its partnership with the Agency past CCiCAP on an unfunded basis. This may be a viable option, given Dream Chaser has already attracted the interest of external customers, including space agencies in Europe.
Back at Boeing, it’s happy days. On top of the billions of NASA dollars they are gaining for their role as the prime contractor on the Space Launch System (SLS), the huge multi-national company can look forward to an additional $4.2 billion from the Agency to progress the CST-100 capsule into space operations.
In announcing the CCtCAP funding, NASA administrator Charlie Bolden proclaimed he was “giddy” at the award confirmation – before spending most of his opening remarks on SLS and NASA’s aspiration of exploring of deep space. Although slightly baffling at first, the association with the CCtCAP awards became clear at the end of his remarks.
“I said all of that because I want you to take it all in totality,” noted General Bolden, before adding the path to exploration requires a strong Low Earth Orbit (LEO) infrastructure as a foundation.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, however, made a more profound association between the commercialization of LEO and the path to deep space.
“SpaceX is deeply honored by the trust NASA has placed in us. We welcome today’s decision and the mission it advances with gratitude and seriousness of purpose,” the SpaceX founder noted in a statement. “It is a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species.”
SpaceX was the other big winner of the CCtCAP decision, resulting in $2.6 billion in funding for its path toward Dragon V2’s missions to the ISS – an achievement SpaceX is already well-versed in with the cargo version of the Dragon, with the next spacecraft preparing for another mission to the Station via CRS-4/SpX-4.
The path toward human missions will include at least one crewed flight test per company with at least one NASA astronaut aboard to “verify the fully integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the space station, as well as validate all its systems perform as expected.”
Following the competition and review of the test flight – achieving the required NASA certification – each contractor will conduct at least two, and as many as six, crewed missions to the Station.
As expected, the commercial spacecraft will – like the Russian Soyuz they are set to replace as the means for NASA astronauts to head uphill – serve as a lifeboat at the orbital outpost, in turn allowing for an increased crew compliment on the ISS.
Specific feature articles on the path for Dragon, CST-100 and Dream Chaser will follow over the near-term period.
(Images via SpaceX, Boeing, SNC, NASA and L2).
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