July 20, 2012 at 4:28 PM ET
NASA is closing out one chapter in the multibillion-dollar effort to create new fleets of spaceships, and getting ready to open the next one. Sometime in the next month or two, the space agency will pick up to three teams of companies to receive hundreds of millions of dollars worth of funding for their spaceship development efforts. That's a lot of money — but it's important to keep all those expenditures in perspective.
NASA's push to commercialize transportation services to low Earth orbit began in 2006, a couple of years after the White House decided that the space shuttle fleet had to be retired, when SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler were awarded almost half a billion dollars to support the development of robotic cargo spacecraft capable of resupplying the space station in the post-shuttle era. "If it doesn't work, I've frankly made the wrong bet," said Mike Griffin, who was NASA's administrator at the time.
In Rocketplane Kistler's case, the bet didn't pay off. NASA paid the company $32.1 million, but Rocketplane failed to win enough private backing to keep going. The company lost its NASA funding and ended up declaring bankruptcy. Orbital Sciences Corp. was selected as a replacement.
With May's successful demonstration flight of the Dragon cargo capsule, SpaceX has virtually completed all its objectives for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS. It should soon get the last of the $396 million in COTS money that NASA has set aside for the company. Orbital Sciences, meanwhile, is gearing up for key flight tests of its Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule, and at last report has received $266.5 million of its $288 million in COTS money.
Even as the development program nears its end, SpaceX and Orbital are getting ready to begin routine cargo flights to the space station under a follow-on program known as Commercial Resupply Services, or CRS. SpaceX is due to get $1.6 billion for 12 flights scheduled through 2015, while Orbital gets $1.9 billion for eight flights. Citing NASA figures, NBC News' Jay Barbree says SpaceX and Orbital have each received $337.6 million in preparation for the CRS flights.
So far, we've been talking about unmanned flights to the space station, but NASA also needs U.S. spaceships capable of carrying astronauts to and from the station. Because these "space taxis" will be carrying people rather than mere stuff, the safety standards will have to be higher than they are for cargo craft. In 2010, NASA started setting aside funds to support the development of such spacecraft by private-sector partners. In the first phase of the program, NASA awarded $50 million to five companies for work on future spaceships or safety systems: $3.7 million to Blue Origin, $18 million to the Boeing Co., $1.4 million to Paragon Space Development Corp., $20 million to Sierra Nevada Corp., and $6.7 million to United Launch Alliance.
Last year, four companies won funding for the development of potential crew vehicles: SpaceX is getting $75 million for work on a crew-capable version of the Dragon. Boeing is getting $112.9 million for its CST-100 capsule. Sierra Nevada is getting $105.6 million for its Dream Chaser space plane, and Blue Origin is getting $22 million for its Orbital Space Vehicle. Three other companies are getting technical advice from NASA, but no money. Those three are ATK, Excalibur Almaz and United Launch Alliance.
Over the past few weeks, NASA has been making a string of announcements to the effect that the companies are meeting their milestones for the current phase of development. Just this week, for instance, the space agency said that it's wrapped up reviews with ATK and United Launch Alliance.
The next phase of the program will extend until May 2014. During this phase — known as Commercial Crew Integrated Capability, or CCiCap — NASA is expected to provide support for up to three teams that are offering complete systems for human spaceflight, including the launch vehicle, the space taxi and the infrastructure for ground and recovery operations. "By the end of the base period, you need to have an integrated design that you have talked with the government about," Ed Mango, program manager for NASA's Commercial Crew Program, told me.
Mango said NASA will announce who gets the CCiCap money sometime in the next 30 to 60 days. Exactly how much money is at stake? Mango won't say until the announcement is made, in part because negotiations are in progress. Each of the teams in the competition was asked to submit a confidential proposal for $300 million to $500 million in support, but NASA has been working with the teams to pare down the price tags if possible.
"It's similar to if you want modifications done to your house," Mango explained. "You can either buy the estimate as is, or you can negotiate on that estimate."
Last month, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., worked out a deal under which two teams would get a full award, while a third backup team would get a partial award. The Obama administration requested $830 million for CCiCap in fiscal 2013, but it looks as if Congress is instead focusing on a funding level around $525 million.
The 2013 funding will be supplemented by extra money that NASA has been holding onto in the current fiscal year, as well as funding yet to be proposed for fiscal 2014, Mango said.
"The plan in fiscal year 2012, when we put our budget together, was always to use a large amount of the funds from fiscal year 2012 to be used for the next activity," he said. "There are hundreds of millions of dollars for FY12 that we will be putting into CCiCap once CCiCap is awarded."
There may be bonuses as well. "We have asked companies to give us optional milestones that we may or may not approve on the government side, that will bring each of the partners all the way through a crew demonstration mission," Mango said.
He doesn't expect any U.S. commercial spaceship to be ready to fly astronauts by mid-2014. "The state of the industry today is not ready to go through that in that amount of time," he said. But if a team is nearing the point at which it can send people safely into space — say, in 2015 or 2016 — there'd be an incentive for them to go for the optional milestone as part of the CCiCap phase of the program.
SpaceX and Boeing, as well as the team behind the Liberty launch system (which includes ATK, Astrium and Lockheed Martin), have said they could have their spacecraft ready for manned flights by late 2015, assuming that adequate funding is available. Sierra Nevada Corp. has said the Dream Chaser could send people into orbit in 2016, and Blue Origin is aiming for a similar time frame.
NASA wants to have U.S. commercial vehicles flying to the space station by 2017. In the meantime, the space agency will be paying the Russians as much as $63 million a seat for orbital rides. The teams vying for CCiCap money say they can beat that price. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, for example, has been quoted as saying the target launch price for crewed Dragon flights is $140 million, which works out to $20 million per seat for seven astronauts.
Mango emphasized that flying astronauts into space isn't just a question of dollars and cents: "Our No. 1 mission is to create a safe capability," he said.
He also noted that the Commercial Crew Program had two "separate but equal" goals. "We have a public need to create a U.S. capability to get folks to low Earth orbit ... and to the International Space Station," he said. The first goal could conceivably encompass scientific research flights or voyages to private-sector space stations, while the second goal is focused specifically on NASA's obligation to support space station operations through at least 2020.
"It's similar to when you look for a car," Mango said. "You buy a car, and then you decide where you want to go with it."
When you count up all the money that NASA has set aside for commercial spaceships, the total comes to several billion dollars over the course of several years. That may sound like a lot of money, but it's far less than what's being spent on NASA's more ambitious effort to build space vehicles for exploration beyond Earth orbit.
As of 2010, roughly $10 billion was spent on Constellation, NASA's now-canceled project to send astronauts back to the moon. Another $2.5 billion was allocated to close out the Constellation contracts. The expenditures included $455 million for a suborbital Ares 1-X test flight that wasn't followed up on, and $500 million for the construction of an Ares 1 Mobile Launcher that was never used and now sits idle at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
That launch platform could still get a workout from the Liberty launch system, which incorporates elements of the Ares 1 rocket. It could also serve as the liftoff point for NASA's Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket that's being developed to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid in the mid-2020s, and perhaps to Mars and its moons sometime in the 2030s.
Last year, Congress and the White House agreed on a plan that calls for spending $18 billion on the SLS rocket and the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle through 2017. That's when the first unmanned test flight is scheduled. About $10 billion would go to designing and building the rocket; $6 billion would go to the Orion development effort, led by Lockheed Martin; and the other $2 billion would go to launch pad construction at Kennedy Space Center.
After 2017, NASA projects that spending on SLS and Orion would amount to $3 billion a year, with the first crewed launch scheduled to take place in 2021. The further out you go, the squishier the numbers get.
The initial rocket flights would be powered by shuttle-style RS-25 engines, plus an updated Saturn-style J-2X for the upper stage, plus an extended version of the solid-rocket boosters that were used on the space shuttle. Last week, NASA announced that four companies were in the running to share $200 million in funding for the development of heftier SLS boosters.
In coming years, new rockets such as SpaceX's Falcon Heavy will probably be in the mix as well, and may even be flying commercial payloads to the moon and Mars. It'll be interesting to see how the next chapters of the spaceship saga play out. Do you have any guesses about future plot twists? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.