Race to Build NASA Space Taxi Down to the Wire

A three-way race to build a commercially operated spaceship to shuttle astronauts — and other paying customers — to and from low-Earth orbit is close the finish line, with NASA aiming to award development and flight service contracts as early as next week.

So far, two companies favoring capsule designs — Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX — have won the lion’s share of NASA’s Commercial Crew program funds. The effort, which began in 2010, is intended to provide a U.S. alternative for flying crews to the International Space Station, which orbits about 260 miles above Earth.

Since NASA retired the space shuttles in 2011, the only human transportation system flying to the station is owned by Russia, which charges about $70 million per person for rides on its Soyuz capsules. NASA hopes to change that before the end of 2017.

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Along with Boeing and SpaceX, NASA has been funding space taxi design work at a third company, Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corp., though its contracts have been about half of what Boeing and SpaceX received.

Sierra Nevada eschewed the capsule design in favor of a small winged spaceplane called Dream Chaser, which resembles a miniature space shuttle. The company has signed partnership agreements with more than 30 companies, nine universities, nine NASA field centers and three international space agencies, a strategy that could provide some flexibility if it is not selected for additional NASA funding.

“We’ve always looked at this as a system, with the space station being a mission. There are other missions that we are looking at. Having this wide group of companies allows us to look at construction, repair missions, the ability to do short- and long-duration science missions independent of the space station,” Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada Space Systems president, told Discovery News.

“For us, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars less at the start of the competition put us at a schedule disadvantage — we couldn’t do as many things — but it made us be a lot more creative in how we were going to manage the last two years,” Sirangelo said.

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“Showing that you can manage to a very tight budget is a pretty big thing,” he added.

Like Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, the Dream Chaser initially would fly on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, which uses a controversial Russian-built motor to power its first stage. Russia has threatened to cut off exports of the motors for military missions in response to U.S. embargoes punishing Russia for incursions into Ukraine. So far, however, the rocket business has continued unimpeded.

SpaceX, which already flies cargo to the space station aboard its Dragon capsules, is adding seats, life support and other upgrades for a passenger version. Both types of Dragon spacecraft launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.

So far, NASA has spent about $1.5 billion on the Commercial Crew program. The agency says competition is critical to drive down costs and reduce technical risks. It intends to continue backing development of two space taxi designs, though has not said how it will pay for that.

As part of the program, companies contribute development funds and will own their vehicles and intellectual property. NASA wants to buy flight services, similar to how it pays SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp to make supply runs to the station.

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Even without NASA funding, SpaceX says it will continue developing its human version of Dragon, albeit at a slower pace.

Sierra Nevada will wait to see what happens with the contract awards before deciding how to proceed, said Sirangelo.

“If we weren’t a winner, we need to understand why and that’s going to factor into our thinking … but we’re still planning to move forward,” Sirangelo said.

Boeing’s take is that without NASA investment and flight service contracts, building a business case for the CST-100 “would be very difficult to do,” John Mulholland, Boeing vice president, said earlier this month at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space 2014 conference in San Diego.

Contract awards are expected by early September.


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