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Spaceship dreams get real

Lewis Geyer / Times-Call
Malcom Buckley, 4, plays underneath a full-scale mockup of SpaceDev's Dream

Chaser spaceship on display Wednesday at Centennial Airport in Englewood, Colo.

Even as one NASA team prepares for next week's shuttle launch, another team is taking a hard look at six alternative visions for low-cost successors to the shuttle. NASA officials are keeping a low profile, but the six finalists involved in the agency's $500 million commercial space competition are giving way more visibility to those future spaceship visions.

The idea behind NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS, is that the space agency would purchase services on privately built spacecraft to send crew members or cargo back and forth between Earth and the international space station. The concept has been compared to renting a truck from U-Haul rather than maintaining your own fleet of moving vans and buses.

It so happens that NASA is working on the equivalent of a moving van as well - a whole new spaceship called the Crew Exploration Vehicle at an estimated cost of $18 billion. The CEV could do the station supply job, of course. But if COTS works, the cost of keeping the space station running would be much less.

"The CEV is overkill for the station," explained Elon Musk, the founder of California-based SpaceX, one of the COTS finalists. Because the Crew Exploration Vehicle and its rocket are really meant for moon missions, using that system to go into low Earth orbit would have a high "financial drag coefficient," he told me.

Theoretically, the spaceships developed for the COTS program could be used for private-sector missions as well - including space tourism jaunts and point-to-point rocket transport. In fact, NASA is banking on the hope that the spaceship companies won't be relying on the space agency as their sole client. (Can you imagine U-Haul making a profit on government business alone?)

Because COTS is all about cost, competitiveness and commercial strategies, NASA has declined to provide status reports about the negotiations with the finalists. When word first emerged last month about the finalist round, the space agency declined to confirm publicly who was in or out. All the information had to come from the companies themselves or sources who were familiar with the competition.

Since then, the finalists have become increasingly open about their proposals.

California-based SpaceDev, for example, publicly unveiled a full-scale mockup of its proposed Dream Chaser mini-shuttle on Wednesday, the second anniversary of SpaceShipOne's historic private-sector spaceflight. SpaceDev says the Dream Chaser, which is modeled after a 1980s-era concept known as the HL-20 lifting body, could carry up to six people and/or cargo to the station and land like an airplane on almost any runway in the world.

In addition to unveiling the mockup at Centennial Airport in Englewood, Colo., the company and its recently acquired space hardware subsidiary, Starsys, unveiled their partners in the COTS proposal: Adam Aircraft, The Aerospace Corp., Emergent Space Technologies, Oceaneering and BAE Systems National Security Solutions.

The company's chief executive officer, Mark Sirangelo, said Wednesday's event was a preview for a NASA site visit that's under way today and tomorrow. During that evaluation, space agency representatives would "see and touch what you're seeing and touching today," he told the invitation-only attendees.

If NASA give the go-ahead to the Dream Chaser concept, the mini-shuttle could fly into orbit from existing spaceports in Florida and Virginia, SpaceDev founder and chairman Jim Benson told me. The craft could also be used for suborbital spaceflights, like the one SpaceShipOne flew two years ago.

"We intend to do our suborbital flights out of New Mexico," Benson said.

You can check out the press reports about the Dream Chaser's unveiling from the Denver Post and the Longmont Daily Times-Call - and get a load of this new SpaceDev animation of the future spacecraft in flight.

All six of the finalists told me today that they would proceed with their spaceship visions even if they didn't get the COTS cash for demonstration flights - but they said NASA's backing would definitely accelerate their plans and make it easier to recruit additional private investors. Here are updates on the other five finalists:

Spacehab: The Houston-based company says it was the first of the finalists to host a two-day NASA site visit. NASA's evaluators visited Spacehab's Florida operations on June 5-6, company spokeswoman Kimberly Campbell told me.

"We felt like it was a very successful two days," she said. NASA officials also wanted lots of supporting documents for the Spacehab bid, and Campbell said the company "felt we've provided all the deliverables."

Spacehab and its partners are proposing its Apex spacecraft concept, which was unveiled almost exactly a year ago. Campbell said "Apex is a big part of our strategic plan," and numerous parties have voiced interest in using one of the selections in the Apex small-medium-large product line. "At this time, we have one customer that has committed funds," Campbell said. She declined to identify the customer.

Andrews Space: The Seattle-based company's co-founder, Jason Andrews, declined to discuss the status of the COTS negotiations, other than to note that his team was proposing an updated version of the crew/cargo spaceship system it had studied under the terms of three earlier NASA contracts in the 2000-2003 time frame.

COTS is different from those earlier efforts, in that this time NASA knows it has to come up with an affordable replacement for the shuttle system. "Before, NASA had confidence in the shuttle. ... There was never a critical mass to go forward with hardware development or service procurement," he told me.

This time around, NASA assumes that private companies won't need public funds for the entire development cost of a new spaceship. Considering the space agency's funding limitations, "that's probably the right approach to take," Andrews said. However, the vision assumes that there will be other markets for orbital space travel - and Andrews noted that "the only market in existence today ... is NASA."

t/Space: The Virginia-based consortium's president, David Gump, told me he was "breathing a sigh of relief" after providing NASA with another 24 pounds' worth of supporting documents for their bid - but he declined to say anything else about the status of t/Space's proposal.

In addition to seeking NASA support, t/Space is going after private backing for its spaceship concept. "We are a good way down that path of raising additional funds, and we think we'll have everything we need if we win a COTS award," he said.

Rocketplane Kistler: The Oklahoma-based company is offering an updated version of the Kistler K-1 concept for orbital operations, at the same time that it's building its Rocketplane jet-rocket hybrid for suborbital flights. "We have a broadly based commercial market for our two vehicles," said David Urie, Rocketplane's executive vice president.

He declined to provide specifics on the status of the COTS negotiations, other than to say the company was "involved in the process" of providing documentation and hosting site visits.

SpaceX: Musk confirmed reports that all the finalists would go to Washington in mid-August to make their final pitch at NASA Headquarters - and it was his understanding that NASA would make a public announcement on the one, two or perhaps three recipients of COTS funding "no later than September."

He said it would be challenging for any company to create an orbital space program like SpaceX's Dragon supported only by the $500 million that NASA has set aside for a four-year COTS demonstration program.

"It is a pretty tall order to accomplish what's being asked for in COTs," he told me. "It would be hard to imagine how an amount of money that is 2 to 3 percent of the shuttle budget for a year could support a whole lot of people."

Musk noted that SpaceShipOne developer Burt Rutan has said creating an orbital spaceflight program would cost a billion dollars or more. "And that's a man who knows how to stretch a buck," Musk added.

Despite those wonderings about the bottom line, Musk said the COTS program was crucial to NASA's success as it makes the transition from the space shuttle era to the next stage of human spaceflight.

"It's far more important than the 1 percent figure would indicate," he said. Musk noted that NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has been "fighting hard" for COTS - "and he's not fighting hard merely to placate the entrepreneurial sector."