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NASA deems rockets less critical in private space race

Posted: April 24, 2011

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NASA gave more weight to spacecraft designers than rocket builders in deciding which firms would receive nearly $270 million for development of commercial space vehicles, leaving companies like United Launch Alliance and ATK shut out of government money.

Artist's concept of Boeing's CST-100 capsule on an Atlas 5 rocket. Credit: Boeing
Documents released after last week's awards show how 11 commercial crew system proposals were ranked by an evaluation panel. Phil McAlister, NASA's acting director of commercial spaceflight development, said proposals from SpaceX and Boeing Co. "stood out from the rest" in the competition.

Boeing is receiving $92.3 million in the second round of Commercial Crew Development awards unveiled April 18. SpaceX captured $75 million to start work on a launch abort system and cockpit equipment for its Dragon capsule.

Sierra Nevada Corp. is getting $80 million to continue development of the Dream Chaser space plane, and Blue Origin garnered $22 million.

Rocket manufacturers were absent from the awards, despite two strong proposals from United Launch Alliance and ATK. ULA's Atlas 5 rocket is the top contender to launch the ships being built by Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin. SpaceX plans to launch the Dragon capsule on its own Falcon 9 booster.

NASA teams decided spacecraft designers could use the funds more than rocket companies.

"Within the U.S. industrial base, there is considerable launch vehicle development expertise and experience, as many companies have successfully developed new launch vehicles over the last few decades," McAlister wrote in a selection statement. "In contrast, no U.S. company has successfully developed a crew-carrying spacecraft in over 30 years."

McAlister said he considered spacecraft development more critical than launch vehicles in accelerating the availability of a commercial crew space transportation system.

NASA also placed importance on selecting a diverse portfolio of awardees and considered each proposal's business case. Under the Space Act Agreements signed with NASA, each company is expected to put skin in the game with private funding to go along with federal money.

The objective of the CCDev 2 awards is to mature the designs of multiple spacecraft in hopes a company can provide transportation to and from low Earth orbit for NASA astronauts by mid-decade. The ships' first destination will likely be the International Space Station.

SpaceX and Sierra Nevada are aiming to be ready for duty by 2014, while Boeing says its CST-100 capsule should be in service in 2015. Blue Origin hasn't released any operational dates for its New Shepard spacecraft.

But each of those vehicles will need a rocket to shoot it into space.

United Launch Alliance proposed continuing development of the Emergency Detection System, a computer to monitor the health of the company's Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets as they soar into orbit.

ULA received $6.7 million from NASA last year in the first CCDev competition. Spending a mix of public and private funds, the Colorado-based company started designing the EDS, developed prototype crew displays for evaluations by NASA mission control teams, and conducted abort demonstrations in a high-fidelity simulation lab.

Artist's concept of the Dragon spacecraft in orbit. Credit: SpaceX
With another government cash infusion this year, ULA hoped to refine the design of the emergency computer, which is about the size of a microwave oven. The company also planned to select a vendor to build the EDS.

ATK submitted a rocket named Liberty in its CCDev proposal. Using a five-segment solid motor first stage based on the firm's work on the cancelled Ares 1 rocket, the Liberty could be tailored to launch several crew spacecraft.

EADS Astrium, a leading European space and defense company, joined ATK to provide the hydrogen-fueled core of the proven Ariane 5 rocket as the Liberty's upper stage. The Liberty rocket would use existing launch infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center and be ready for test flights by the end of 2013, according to ATK, the contractor for the space shuttle's solid rocket boosters.

Although NASA favorably assessed the proposals from ULA and ATK, the agency ultimately chose four spacecraft providers to receive federal funding through May 2012.

After selecting Boeing and SpaceX's capsules as winners in the CCDev competition, NASA turned to choosing a lifting body concept.

"Given the emphasis on diversity, I considered it important to have at least one lifting body concept in the portfolio," McAlister said, noting that while lifting bodies are more technically complex, they offer some advantages over Apollo-style capsules.

Lifting bodies are spacecraft with short, stubby wings designed to glide back to Earth and land on a conventional runway. The space shuttle is based on a lifting body design, but the CCDev proposals involve smaller, less capable spacecraft.

Sierra Nevada and Orbital Sciences Corp. proposed lifting bodies in the competition, and McAlister said he selected Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser because it was further along in development and could haul more astronauts and cargo than Orbital's concept.

McAlister said Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser design had more margin to cope with potential mass growth due to unforeseen issues in development, despite perceived risks in the Dream Chaser's abort system.

With launch vehicles ranked slightly lower than spacecraft, NASA tapped Blue Origin, a secretive company established by founder Jeff Bezos, to receive the remaining money.

Blue Origin's New Shepard vehicle is a biconic-shaped craft designed to deliver astronauts and cargo to the space station and return to Earth for a rocket-powered touchdown on landing legs.